In Transcendent Kingdom, Gifty is trying to gather information from the neural pathways of mice which could yield a cure for depression, addiction, or both. Gifty's brother has died of a drug overdose, while her mother is chronically depressed. There is an obvious connection between these two circumstances, but Gifty believes that she can see another, less obvious scientific link between addiction and depression. Addiction involves taking extreme risks in the pursuit of pleasure. Depression involves failing or refusing to seek pleasure which is available with little or no risk. Gifty sees these two states as existing on a continuum, and believes that by understanding pleasure-seeking behavior in mice, she will be able to make a medically useful connection between depression and addiction, perhaps leading to a remedy for both.
Gifty's research is based on the work of Dr. Christina Kim, a postdoctoral research fellow at Stanford University, who is a friend of the author, Yaa Gyasi, and was in exactly the same academic position as Gifty, completing a PhD. in neuroscience at Stanford, while the novel was being written. Gyasi has said that her interest in her friend's research was the inspiration for the novel. When listening to Dr. Kim talk about the link between depression and addiction, she realized that it would be an effective literary device to create a backstory for a fictional scientist which reflected this connection.