Carla Nasca

2019 Regional Award Finalist — Post-Doc

Carla Nasca

Current Position:
Research Associate

The Rockefeller University


Recognized for: the discovery of acetyl-L-carnitine (LAC) as a novel modulator of brain rewiring and a possible new treatment for depression that acts by turning specific genes on and off related to the neurotransmitter glutamate.

Areas of Research Interest and Expertise: Depression, Glutamate, Metabolism, Stress, Epigenetics


2019 Blavatnik Regional Awards Honorees in Life Sciences


Postdoctoral Fellow of the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, The Rockefeller University
PhD, Sapienza University of Rome, Italy
MS, University of Palermo, Italy

Research Summary:

Dr. Nasca is a molecular neuroscientist, and her work led to the discovery of acetyl-L-carnitine (LAC) as a promising biological marker of depression and a modulator of brain plasticity – the ability of the brain to change and rewire. LAC is a metabolite found in the mitochondria, which is known as the powerhouse of the cell. Dr. Nasca demonstrated that LAC can turn on genes important for brain plasticity. This effect occurs primarily with genes related to the neurotransmitter, glutamate, in parts of the brain involved in emotion. In turn, administration of LAC can act as a rapid anti-depressant in mice exposed to chronic stress, a primary risk factor for depression.

Dr. Nasca and her group further established a broader link between LAC and metabolic problems of depression such as insulin resistance – a condition in which organs have trouble using glucose, the body’s main source of fuel. Her translational work in humans suggests that LAC is a biomarker of depression associated with childhood trauma and resistance to traditional antidepressants. These novel insights into fundamental mechanisms of the brain increases our basic understanding of brain-body communication and opens the possibility for novel, more effective therapies for metabolic problems and depression in a way different from traditional antidepressants.

"I love my work and the excitement coming from new knowledge that can lead you to unexpected, transformative directions. While most biomedical research has focused on genes in our brain, I am fascinated by the brain-body communication in shaping our behaviors and mood. By thoroughly studying the interplay between brain plasticity and metabolic function, I hope to provide novel insights into the cellular and molecular basis of depression and its treatment."

Key Publications:

  1. C. Nasca, B. Bigio, D. Zelli, P. de Angelis, T. Lau, M. Okamoto, H. Soya, J. Ni, L. Brichta, P. Greengard, R.L. Neve, F.S. Lee, B.S. McEwen. Role of the astroglial glutamate exchanger xCT in ventral hippocampus in resilience to stress. Neuron, 2017.
  2. C. Nasca, B. Bigio, F.S. Lee, S.P. Young, M.M. Kautz, A. Albright, J. Beasley, D.S. Millington, A.A. Mathé, J.H. Kocsis, J.W. Murrough, B.S. McEwen, N. Rasgon N. Acetyl-l-carnitine deficiency in patients with major depressive disorder.Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 2018.
  3. C. Nasca, B. Bigio, D. Zelli, F. Nicoletti, B.S. McEwen. Mind the gap: glucocorticoids modulate hippocampal glutamate tone underlying individual differences in stress susceptibility.Molecular Psychiatry, 2015.
  4. C. Nasca, D. Xenos, Y. Barone, A. Caruso, S. Scaccianoce, F. Matrisciano, G. Battaglia, A.A. Mathé, A., F. Nicoletti. L-acetylcarnitine causes rapid antidepressant effects through the epigenetic induction of mGlu2 receptors. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 2013.  

Other Honors:

2013 AAAS Excellence in Science Award, American Association for the Advancement of Science
2013 AFSP Post-Doctoral Research Fellowship, American Foundation for Suicide Prevention
2013 ECNP Fellowship Award, European College of Neuropsychopharmacology
2014 Best Ph.D. Thesis Award, Accademia Gioenia
2014 RTDF Proof-of-Concept Award, Robertson Therapeutic Development Fund
2014-6 SfN Neuroscience Hot Topic, Society for Neuroscience
2015 Career Development Award, PDA, Rockefeller University
2016 NYAS F1000 Prize, New York Academy of Sciences
2017 ACNP Travel Award, American College of Neuropsychopharmacology
2018 ACSP New Investigator Award (NIA), American Society of Clinical Psychopharmacology

In the Media:

Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, 2013: Next generation antidepressants “Work by Nasca et al. represents the type of basic science research that can help guide the development of novel, more rapidly acting treatments for depression”

Nature: Antidepressant epigenetic action of L-acetylcarnitine

Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, 2018: Myriad of implications of acetyl-l-carnitine deficits in depression

Genetic Engineering & Biotechnology NewsBlood Biomarker May Help Depression Diagnosis

The Kavli FoundationResearchers Find New Signs of Stress Damage in the Brain, Plus Hope For Prevention

Bipolar Network NewsLow Levels of Acetyl-L-Carnitine Associated with Insulin Resistance in Traumatized Children

ABC News Could a blood test lead to new treatments for depression?

NewsweekWhat is Acetyl-l-Carnitine? Depression linked to low levels of brain molecule

Focus.itDepressione: nella carenza di una molecola del sangue una possibile spia

MadridUn biomarcador Un biomarcador sanguíneo para la depresión mayor

US NewsCould a Blood Test Help Spot Severe Depression?

EurekAlertLack of a single molecule may indicate severe and treatment-resistant depression

XinhuanetSubstance in blood identified as biomarker for depression: study