Behavioral Neuroscience students have numerous opportunities to participate in undergraduate research alongside our many faculty members studying related topics. Read about some of their research below.
Our research focuses on the neuroethology of motor systems in invertebrates and lower vertebrates and the application of this knowledge to the development of advanced robots. We have focused on the development of technology that allows recording from motor pattern generators and the behavior they control to directly address the cellular mechanisms of behavior. We have performed these studies on the walking and stomatogastric systems of lobster and the undulatory behavior of the lamprey. We are focusing on the achievement of reactive autonomy through the development of a process that allows the derivation of robotic behavioral libraries through reverse engineering the command sequences that underlie the behavior of the model species in the target environment.
Dr. Brenhouse’s lab studies the dynamic interaction between the brain, the body, and the environment throughout early life and adolescent development. Adverse or traumatic experience during early life is a known risk factor for the development of mental illness; however, the manifestation of disease does not typically occur until years after the adverse event. Using animal models with genetic, behavioral, and pharmacological manipulation, her laboratory investigates why this occurs, and how we might prevent it. Since stress plays an important role in the interaction of the brain with our immune system, her lab tries to measure how early life stress affects inflammatory responses and can subsequently change how neurons behave in emotion-regulating regions of the brain. In this way, the lab aims to determine when and how early life experiences alter neural development, in order to treat unique at-risk populations and prevent a lifetime of mental illness.
Specialization: Neurobiology and development of circadian rhythms
Laboratory: Biological Clocks Laboratory
The myriad 24-hour, or circadian, rhythms observed at all levels of organization in organisms are manifestations of internal circadian programs driven by feedback loops involving “clock” genes and proteins. Circadian programs can be disrupted by genetics, disease, and by the environment, increasingly so in a 24/7 society with light at night and the ability to rapidly travel across times zones. In mammals, the SCN, a small cluster of neurons in the hypothalamus, coordinates circadian rhythms throughout the body. Basic research on rodents in the Davis lab includes studies of SCN development, entrainment of the SCN by light/dark cycles, SCN communication with other parts of the brain, and repair of degenerated circadian rhythms by neural transplantation. The lab also studies the development of rhythms in organs such as the lung and liver and whether environmental conditions influence circadian rhythm development.
Specialization: Magnetic Resonance Imaging and Neurodegenerative Diseases
Work at the CTNI is focused on four major areas 1) Alzheimer’s disease, 2) Parkinson’s disease 3) repetitive mild traumatic brain injury, and 4) opioid addiction. Preclinical animal models for each of these problems in human health are studied using non-invasive magnetic resonance imaging to follow developmental changes in brain function and structure.
Specialization: Prenatal Exposure to Drugs of Abuse
The primary focus of Dr. Jackson’s research is on how exposure to cocaine (and other psychostimulants including methamphetamine) exposure during pregnancy affects neuronal interactions in the fetus throughout development. We utilize neurochemical and behavioral strategies to assess alterations in brain areas modulating motor function and reward throughout development. The animal model we are using has several parallels to neuronal and behavioral changes that occur in humans with attention deficit disorder. Hence by characterizing alterations in our model in greater detail, we hope to develop pharmacological treatments that restore neurochemical and behavioral function at the clinical level.
Dr. Melloni studies the neurobiology of aggressive behavior. The main goal of this research is to understand how drug use and exposure to social stress during adolescence alter brain development and influence aggressive behavior. The three main research projects using animal models investigate: (1) the neurobiology of aggression following adolescent exposure to androgens and stimulants; (2) the behavioral and neurobiological effects of exposure to psychiatric drugs used to treat aggression in youth; and (3) the neurobiology of early social defeat stress (often referred to as social subjugation – the production of submissive behavior as the result of repeated physical defeat)
Dr. Monaghan’s lab uses the axolotl salamander to investigate the cellular and molecular basis of complex tissue regeneration. Axolotls have the amazing ability to regenerate large portions of their limbs, tail, heart, and spinal cord. His lab studies the development and regeneration of the nervous system and limb and the interactions that take place between these organ systems to ask: 1) Why are nerves necessary for complex tissue regeneration? 2) What cellular properties do the axolotls possess that allow them to regenerate limbs and spinal cords? These important questions have the potential to impact our understanding of animal homeostasis as well as regenerative medicine.
Specialization: Visual Perception and Psychophysics
Laboratory: ERG Studies
Dr. Naarendorp’s research is aimed at understanding the relationship between neural activity in the retina and vision. Dr. Naarendorp seeks to describe response characteristics of photoreceptors and their associated retinal pathways. Studies of this kind are important from the standpoint of basic science because they provide insight into the early stages of information processing by the nervous system.
Donald M. O’Malley
Specialization: Computational and Systems Neuroscience, Biological Intelligence
Dr. O’Malley studies the computational capabilities of neuronal populations at the core of nervous systems, including everything from sensorimotor transformations to more complex behaviors. Basic research includes using the larval zebrafish animal model to understand its neural control and extended locomotor repertoire.
The theoretical and computational branch of the research program aims to understand how intrinsic neuronal circuits, in conjunction with synaptic plasticity, evolved into the supremely powerful devices that epitomize the hominid lineage.
Specialization: Behavioral Ecology and Insect Sociobiology
Dr. Rosengaus’ research tries to understand the factors that may have selected for the evolution of insect sociality. She has hypothesized that pathogens and/or parasites may have played important selection forces that favored the evolution of such complex societies as those of the ants, bees, wasps and termites. She has established that termites and ants use several, and often simultaneous mechanisms to reduce the risks of infection, including behavioral, biochemical, immunological and social adaptations. This work is at the interface of evolutionary biology, behavioral and chemical ecology, immunology and genetics. Social insects represent excellent social test organisms to answer questions about the emerging field of “socio-eco-immunology”. Field work takes place at the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute in Panama and at the Redwoods in California.
Stress-related mental illnesses like Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) and Major Depressive Disorder (MDD) are twice as common in women, but relevant pre-clinical research on the mechanisms of stress and fear has primarily been conducted in male animals. Our research focuses on the neural connections between the medial prefrontal cortex (mPFC) and the amygdala, and sex differences in how this circuit processes fear and responds to stress. The mPFC and amygdala are frequently reported to be sites of dysfunction in stress-related mental illnesses like PTSD and MDD, the symptoms of which may be a result of abnormal cross-talk between the two regions. For our investigations, Dr. Shansky’s lab employs classic neuroanatomy techniques with state-of-the-art confocal microscopy to reconstruct neurons in 3D.
Laboratory: Center for Neurophysiology
Dr. Sikes specializes in the neurophysiology of the cingulate cortex; in particular, the role of cingulate cortex in pain sensation. The cingulate cortex is an important region of the pain system which provides the emotional, affective component of pain sensation and the unpleasantness of pain. His research uses a combination of neurophysiological and neuroanatomical techniques to identify the distribution of nociceptive neurons within the subareas of cingulate cortex and to define their physiological properties. Research has included pathway investigation to understand pain information transmission, and now focuses on contrasting the effects of somatic and visceral noxious stimulation on cingulate neuron activity. Additional areas of interest: Plasticity of cortex, alterations of receptive fields following loss of sensory input; dopamine systems, neurophysiology and anatomy of striatal nuclei.
Motor skills such as throwing a ball, eating with knife and fork or dancing are uniquely human and key to functional behavior. Optimizing the acquisition and preventing or reverting the degradation of skill requires a rigorous quantitative understanding. The Action Lab analyzes how human neurophysiology and task mechanics constrains sensorimotor skills and their change. Variability, both in its temporal and spatial structure, is core to capture skill and its change. This work has applications for and performance enhancement and recovery after neurological injury.
Dr. Sternad’s research includes three components. First, behavioral experiments on human subjects. Second, there is theoretical work developing mathematical models for movement generation. Lastly, she uses brain imaging studies to investigate the neural activity that accompanies movement. These areas have been the basis of studies for neurological disorders such as Parkinson’s disease, stroke patients, and children with motor disorders.
Dr. Günther K.H. Zupanc’s research focuses on neural plasticity in the adult central nervous system of teleost fish, and on the role of structural changes of neurons in behavioral plasticity. The ultimate goal is to help to answer some of the fundamental questions in neurobiology, such as: What cellular mechanisms underlie structural plasticity in the adult central nervous system?, and, what evolutionary constraints have caused the enormous difference between mammals and teleost fish in the potential to exhibit neural plasticity?
To address these questions, his lab employs an integrative approach — the techniques and concepts used in our investigations are taken from a wide range of disciplines, including molecular biology, biochemistry, cell biology, neuroanatomy, neurophysiology, biophysics, computational neurobiology, and behavioral neurobiology.