Student Has Stimulating Future

Corey Keller: M.D.-Ph.D. Graduate Builds Networks to Understand Them

The brain has often been compared to an orchestra. Just as various instruments create an interplay of melody, harmony, rhythm, and dynamics to make up the music, the brain’s complex networks of individual neurons interact in various patterns and frequencies (or sometimes not) to maintain basic functions or to process thoughts.

It is the functioning of these networks and the factors that cause their dysfunction that captivate Corey Keller, who recently earned both Ph.D. and M.D. degrees at Einstein’s commencement on May 28, 2015. The newly minted doctor spent the past eight years conducting research to understand how neural networks function in normal and disease states. He concurrently completed his studies and training for medicine.

Bridging Backgrounds

After completing a double major in electrical and biomedical engineering at Tufts University in 2007, the future physician-scientist pursued a master’s in biomedical engineering. He used his training in computing, mathematical modeling and biology to inform his research in the laboratory of Dr. Sydney Cash, associate professor of neurology at Harvard Medical School and physician at Massachusetts General Hospital (MGH). In the Cash lab, Dr. Keller studied how neural networks of epilepsy patients change during seizures.

Corey Keller, M.D., Ph.D.
Corey Keller, M.D., Ph.D.
Among his findings was that he enjoyed interacting with the patients at MGH. This inspired the Vermont native to apply to medical school.

He completed his first year at Einstein in its M.D. program. But he found that he missed research.

As summer approached, he reached out to Dr. Ashesh Mehta, a neurosurgeon at Long Island Jewish Medical Center whom he knew from collaborations with Dr. Cash’s lab. Dr. Mehta, an alumnus of Einstein’s Medical Scientist Training Program (MSTP), invited him to work in his lab that summer at North Shore University Hospital.

Dr. Keller with Dr. Fred Lado, who “hooded” him following receipt of his Ph.D.
Dr. Keller with Dr. Fred Lado, who “hooded” him following receipt of his Ph.D.
The research he conducted with Dr. Mehta resulted in a first-author publication in the Proceedings of the National Academies of Science, and in his getting direct funding from the Epilepsy Foundation and through the National Institutes of Health’s prestigious National Research Service Award?a fellowship through which the NIH funds pre-doctoral students throughout their Ph.D. studies. It also led to acceptance into Einstein’s MSTP, through which he could pursue a Ph.D. along with his medical degree. After completing two years of medical school courses, he began his Ph.D. studies in 2011.

As an MSTP candidate, he was co-mentored by Dr. Mehta and Dr. Fred Lado, professor of clinical neurology at Einstein, as well as director of the electroencephalography lab at Einstein’s University Hospital, Montefiore Medical Center and chief of service for neurology at Montefiore’s Moses and Wakefield divisions. This allowed him unique access to an expert in basic neuroscience research in Dr. Lado, and to a highly regarded neurosurgeon in Dr. Mehta.

“To determine where in the brain seizures originate, Dr. Mehta implants hundreds of electrodes into the brains of patients with epilepsy; the electrodes record electrical signals after sending small pulses of current into the brain,” explained Dr. Keller. “I gained an understanding of the electrical signaling in neural networks that occur during normal brain function and during seizures, and I was able to observe how the brain responds to direct electrical stimulation.”

He added, “Through my work with Drs. Lado and Mehta, I accomplished the difficult task of analyzing and understanding what the mountains of collected data mean.”

Many Heads Are Better Than One

To date, Dr. Keller has had a prolific career for a young scientist. He leaves Einstein with 11 publications and has seven more papers that have either been submitted to journals or are being prepared for submission.

“Corey’s curiosity, intelligence and work ethic have led to a publication record that is truly outstanding and remarkable for a researcher so early in his career,” noted Dr. Lado.

“He is a motivated self-starter who has a bright future ahead of him as a physician-scientist,” agreed Dr. Mehta.

Dr. Keller insists that his success was greatly aided by his mentors and many collaborators.

“I’m not a person who shies away from asking for help,” he said. “And I’ve been fortunate to create a network of people to contact when questions in the lab or clinic arise.”

His collaborators include neurology and neuroscience colleagues at Einstein, such as Dr. Kamran Khodakhah, acting chair of the Dominick P. Purpura Department of Neuroscience, as well as scientists from as far away as the Weizmann Institute, in Israel, and the Hungary Institute.

A particularly significant collaborator has been Dr. Chris Honey, assistant professor of psychology at the University of Toronto. The two met when Dr. Honey was still a graduate student. “I reached out to Chris for guidance on data analysis, and we’ve maintained weekly contact ever since,” said Dr. Keller.

He continued, “Collaboration is essential to fueling scientific and medical innovation. In addition to invaluable advice and discussions about research, I’ve made great friends all over the world.”

Looking Ahead

This fall, Dr. Keller will make use of his dual doctoral degrees as a medical resident in the psychiatry research track at Stanford University Hospital, in California. He’ll train to become an interventional psychiatrist, a physician who applies a variety of brain stimulation techniques to treat medication-resistant psychiatric diseases. He has already begun designing experiments with his new mentor, Dr. Amit Etkin, assistant professor of psychiatry and behavioral science at the Stanford/VA/NIA Aging Clinical Research Center.

“My plan is to approach my research in a brain-based, neuroscientific fashion. I want to explore which brain networks are altered in psychiatric disorders, such as severe depression, and how we might use brain stimulation to modify those neural networks to relieve medical symptoms.”

Dr. Keller hopes to determine how to personalize brain stimulation interventions for patients whose psychiatric diseases don’t respond to standard medications.

“Brain stimulation is an emerging field of study that is fascinating from both clinical and research perspectives,” he said. “It offers the perfect interplay among psychiatry, neuroscience and engineering—my three backgrounds. There are a multitude of technologies that can be applied to optimizing brain stimulation, and I’m excited about combining these strengths to develop treatment options that can help patients.”

He added, “I have found my calling—alternating between treating patients in the clinic and attempting to solve medicine’s unsolved mysteries in the lab. Doing both is exhilarating and essential to truly understanding and solving the problem at hand.”

Posted on: Wednesday, June 3, 2015