The primary goal of the behavioral neuroscience lab is to understand the lifelong interplay between brain and behavior. We strive to learn more about this provocative relationship by designing and conducting studies that are rooted in the following kinds of questions: What are the underlying neural systems and mechanisms that support behavioral change? What impact do behavior and experiences have on neural structure and function? And our favorite: Do the answers to these questions change depending on biological sex, age, or past experiences, good or bad?
Choline Neuroprotection Against Psychopathology
One focus in the lab is on how dietary choline intake at different stages over the lifespan mediates cognition, anxiety, stress reactivity, and neural function and plasticity. We are excited to report that choline has a robust antidepressant effect and are also examining whether it could alter outcomes in rat models of schizophrenia and addiction. We are also thrilled to have the chance to work with rat knockout models in our search for the genomic and epigenomic bases of choline’s actions. This research was funded by Maine’s INBRE (NIGMS/IDeA) 2010-2015.
New Methods to Induce Mild Traumatic Brain Injury
Another focus in the lab is on the induction of mild traumatic brain injury in rodents. Unsatisfied with existing models that do not adequately model the injurious event and thus the rotational acceleration of the head that is key to the behavioral and neural symptoms that result, we have designed a new apparatus that places the rodent in motion toward a fixed obstacle. We are working to characterize outcomes in the model and have observed key differences in the symptom profile between female and male rats.
Sex Differences in Brain and Behavior
We are keenly aware of the ways in which female and male rats differ in all our assays and continue to investigate the extent to which our manipulations, particularly early nutrient availability and head injuries, may have differential impacts based on biological sex. That said, the lab has recently shifted to conducting studies almost exclusively with female rats to address the severe paucity of information on them.
NATURALISTIC BEHAVIOR IN LAB RATS
A major new project in the lab aims to elevate the discourse around behavioral work in neuroscience. We strongly believe that there is an alarming trend of reducing the complexity and richness of behavior to overly simple and quickly executed tests, particularly in pre-clinical studies with rats and mice. We propose that laboratory and test conditions are less than ideal and this project places rats in semi-natural conditions with a rich social life and materials akin to their wild habitats. We are studying how rats organize their behavior in these structures and aim to develop ethologically-relevant methods based on these studies. We are excited by the Data Science initiative at Colby that has figured significantly into our need for new methods for dealing with large, varied data sets. I was able to kick off this major project in collaboration with Dr. Dave Mumby at Concordia University in Montreal, Canada with the support of a 2017-2018 James McKeen Cattell Fund Fellowship.