Associate Professor of Chemistry Receives Research Grant

Dr. Yongli Chen

Associate Professor of Chemistry Yongli Chen, Ph.D., was awarded a nearly $50,000 grant from the Victoria S. and Bradley L. Geist Foundation. Chen’s research focuses on the functional modulation of two neurotransmitter receptors, the neuronal nicotinic acetylcholine receptors and the type A gamma-amino butyl acid (GABAA) receptors. She is exploring how small molecules modulate ion channels that are involved in various degenerative disorders of the brain.

Chen’s latest research endeavor studies the biologically active components of the Pacific islands plant, kava. The plants aqueous root extracts have shown to safely reduce anxiety and depression in human clinical trials. Furthermore, in an animal model, the aqueous root extracts enhanced the anticonvulsant activity of diazepam, a drug to treat anxiety disorders. The major active constituents of kava beverages are six kavalactones.

The GABAA receptors are the major inhibitory neurotransmitter receptors in the mammalian central nervous system.  They are also major targets of pharmacological agents including sedatives, anesthetics, anticonvulsants, antiepileptics, and anxiolytics. As such, modulation of the GABAA receptors has been investigated as a mechanism by which kava elicits biological activities.

The aims of Chen’s study are to characterize the mechanism of action of kavalactones on the GABAA receptors and the long-term effects on the GABAA receptor cell surface expression level. The identification and understanding of the molecular targets/mechanism of kavalactones will demystify and promote Hawai‘i’s popular and medicinal drink and benefit the people of Hawai‘i.

Chen is a member of the HPU IDeA Network of Biomedical Research (INBRE) Laboratories team. INBRE, which was funded by the National Institutes of Health in partnership with the University of Hawai‘i and Chaminade University, supports instructional lab courses, increases undergraduate and graduate research opportunities, expands facilities for federally-funded biology, chemistry and biochemistry research projects, and enhances outreach to local schools.