Kelly Brown

 Kelly Brown

Chemistry, University of Strathclyde

Tenure since 2017

Electrochemical assessment of the psychoactivity of new illicit substancesKelly Brown resize

In 2016 the Psychoactive Substances Act was introduced into UK law to tackle the growing problem of the use of “legal highs” as alternatives to controlled drugs. These new psychoactive substances (NPS) pose a high risk to public health with little known of their origins, risks and short and long term effects. The definition of a psychoactive substance according to the 2016 Act is a substance which is “capable of producing a psychoactive effect in a person who consumes it”. Currently to assess the psychoactivity of a substance pharmacological and toxicological studies are performed in animal models over a number of weeks and used in combination with the reported effects from users. Commonly these studies are not available for NPS. At present, there are no alternatives within forensic practices to address this situation, when pharmacological and toxicology studies are not available for NPS and so the requirements to successfully legislate against their use cannot be met. This project aims to address the current gap within forensic practices for the analysis of NPS for their psychoactive potential, through the development of electrochemical methods for sensitive and rapid identification of psychoactive substances in a cost-effective manner.

My project will use electrochemistry to monitor recognition events between chemical substances and receptors (associated with psychoactivity), to develop a model for the assessment of psychoactivity. Electrodes modified with receptors, such as the cannabinoid receptor, will allow for recognition-event-detection through monitoring of the changes in electrochemical behaviour of the modified electrode surface. This approach is currently used in the field of biomedical diagnosis to detect specific interactions between target analytes and recognition molecules within clinical applications. Investigation of different receptors will be undertaken with the aim to develop a multiplexed electrode array containing cannabinoid, opioid, diamorphine and serotonin receptors. The ultimate aim of this project is to develop a cost effective and potentially commercial electrochemical array which would have a significant impact on the forensic analysis of NPS, bridging the current knowledge gap and addressing the need for rapid analysis of NPS to allow for determination of their psychoactivity.


I graduated from the University of Strathclyde in June 2017 with a First Class Masters degree (MChem) in Forensic and Analytical Chemistry. In my final year, I was awarded the Andersonian Centenary Medal Prize, which is awarded to the most outstanding final year undergraduate in the Department of Pure and Applied Chemistry, as well as being nominated for the Chartered Society of Forensic Sciences Most Meritorious Undergraduate Student award. In my second and third years, I was awarded the Dr Quintin Moore Prize, which is annually awarded to the best second and third year undergraduate student within the Department of Pure and Applied Chemistry and I was continually placed on the Dean’s list during my university career.

During fourth year, I undertook an industrial placement working within AstraZeneca as an analytical sandwich student in product development. During this time, I worked on a 6-month research project using capillary electrophoresis for the separation of oligonucleotides. As a result of my research I was awarded the Stephen Baldwin Memorial Award, awarded by AstraZeneca to recognise an outstanding contribution to analytical chemistry through the student research project undertaken. I also spent the summer between first and second year working within the Scottish Leather Group as a laboratory assistant and undertook a summer research placement with Dr Lorraine Gibson in my second year of university, investigating the removal nitrobenzene pollution from water.

I completed my Master’s research project under the supervision of Dr Pamela Allan, who is now one of my PhD supervisors along with my primary supervisor Dr Lynn Dennany. My research focused on the development of methods to extract and determine the tropane alkaloids, atropine and scopolamine within Datura plant species and archaeological samples. I really enjoyed this project, which helped cement my decision to embark upon a PhD.