Khat is a plant that is widely used but also widely debated because of its psychostimulant effects. This summer Leonard Kilekwang ’16 researched the effects of khat (also known as miraa) on mice at the department of Medical Physiology at the University of Nairobi, Kenya. His research, financed by the Summer Internship Support Fund managed by Hamilton’s Career Center, will provide important results for people and government organizations trying to determine whether khat is safe.
Khat (Catha edulis) is a kind of plant that grows natively in the Horn of Africa and the Arabian Peninsula. It is widely used in those areas for its stimulant properties, similar to those of amphetamine. The effects of khat are reported to include euphoria, excitement and loss of appetite. Khat is one of Kenya’s top exports and is sent to Ethopia, Yemen and the UK, among other countries. Recently, however, some countries, such as the UK and Germany, have classified khat as a controlled substance. These governments believe that khat can lead to psychological dependence and other negative side-effects, including depression and psychosis.
However, there has not been much research on the effects of khat. According to Kilekwang, “Limited scientific research had been done on this drug even though millions of people use it all over the world.”
His research project that summer sought to correct that deficiency. Kilekwang explained, “We thought investigating [khat’s] short and long terms effects would be great for science and also for the community.” His research examined the effects of khat on mice in order to better understand the possible dangers of khat for humans.
Kilekwang’s research came about from a connection with Professor Nilesh Patel of the University of Nairobi. Before committing to a major in neuroscience, Kilekwang said he “wanted to learn more about its prospects in Africa, particularly in my country Kenya.” His research led him to the Society of Neuroscientists of Africa, where he found Professor Patel, an alumnus of Kilekwang’s alma mater, Nairobi School. Patel was planning research on khat and invited the Hamilton senior to work in his lab.
Kilekwang’s research experience was therefore an opportunity to see the applications of neuroscience in his native country and to develop his own research skills. He found that the summer research was an immense learning experience. “I have done research on campus before,” Kilekwang said, “but this one was unique because I worked alone for the most part and I felt like the project was mine.”
He learned to design and carry out an entire study, from choosing the length of the study to testing the drug on mice. Kilekwang remarked that learning animal handling and different ways of administering drugs was his favorite part of the experiment.
By the end of the summer, Kilekwang finished his study with increased confidence in his research abilities and a goal to continue scientific research after graduation.