Dr. Fay Guarraci, professor of psychology at Southwestern, recently led a group of students in a research study investigating ketamine and its effects on sexual dysfunction. Their groundbreaking research is particularly exciting, because the medical community has only recently begun to use ketamine as a treatment for depression. Ketamine is classified as an anesthetic, but off-label use of the drug has shown to help people with treatment-resistant depression. Dr. Guarraci’s research was the first to focus on the effects of sexual dysfunction when using ketamine to treat depression, and the results could have a tremendous impact on the future use of the drug.  

The Big Idea

Dr. Guarraci’s interest in studying ketamine was initially sparked by an article brought up in class by one of her students. Through class discussions, the group became interested in studying its side effects, specifically those that are typical of common antidepressants such as sexual dysfunction.

Dr. Guarraci is a leading expert in the field of behavioral neuroscience, and has studied how drugs of abuse affect sexual motivation in the female rat for over ten years, conducting many research projects leading to numerous publications. She often collaborates with students, and has co-authored over 20 papers with students over the last 15 years. “I believe the key to making research a great experience for students is equality. I engage in research with student collaborators,” she explains. “Although I have a deeper knowledge base and more technical skills than they have, once they learn the basics, I interact with them as if they were my colleagues. I take their comments and actions seriously and they take me seriously.”

This particular project provided a great experience for students to work in a lab setting, conducting research side-by-side with an expert in the field. 

This particular project provided a great experience for students to work in a lab setting, conducting research side-by-side with an expert in the field. What an amazing opportunity for undergraduate students.

The Research Process

Southwestern students Chantal Gonzalez, Devon Lucero, Paige Womble, Heba Abdel-Rahim, Jennie deVore, Emma Quadlander and Morgan Stinnett, along with St. Edward’s professor Dr. Jessica Boyette-Davis and St. Ed’s student Marcela Nicole Kunkel, collaborated on this project. Together, they developed a study using animal models to measure the effects of ketamine on the following three things:

  1. Locomotive behavior
  2. Anxiety
  3. Sexual dysfunction

Their testing involved rats in a mating arena divided into three equal compartments using two clear Plexiglas dividers. These dividers had a 5-cm hole in both bottom corners. To test sexual motivation, the female subject was placed in the center of a mating chamber and given an opportunity to spend time with either a male or female stimulus during a test for sexual partner preference 30 minutes after an injection of ketamine or saline. In other words, they observed to see whether the female rat chose to mate with the male or instead gravitated to hang out with the female. “Rats aren’t people, but our model is very useful for assessing sexual dysfunction and function.”

Going into the research, the group anticipated that the results would show that like most treatments for depression, ketamine would cause sexual dysfunction. However, the results proved otherwise.

Groundbreaking Results

When the study concluded, the team was fascinated by what they found. The results are described in the paper, The Effects of Ketamine on Sexual Behavior, Anxiety, and Locomotion in Female Rats, which was published in January in the journal Pharmacy, Biochemistry and Behavior.

To summarize, they determined that ketamine (given once or given repeatedly) not only doesn’t have any deleterious side-effects on sexual behavior, but it actually improved sexual motivation in female rats.

Dr. Guarraci explains, “What makes this so fascinating is that every other drug that is currently used to treat depression has the opposite effect, they decrease sexual motivation. To report that ketamine actually improves sexual motivation in an important finding.”

It could mean that in the future, treating depression does not automatically mean a decrease in sexual motivation for the patient.

Although this particular project is complete and the paper is published, Dr. Guarraci certainly isn’t sitting still. After taking a hiatus last semester to complete the study, she’s back to teaching and researching alongside her students.

As for the students, she hopes they take away a lot from the experience. Even if they go onto another field of study, the techniques and skills they learned will help them in future research.  Because my own personal interest in research was fostered while I was an undergraduate student at McGill University, I believe a positive experience in the lab can shape a student’s future.”

For more information about Dr. Guarraci’s teaching philosophy, previous research and publications, click here.