By Gwen Schanker, Journalism and Biology, 2018
Rebecca Shansky, assistant professor of psychology at Northeastern University, and her research team have spent two years working on their most recent publication. The article, Sex-Specific Neuroanatomical Correlates of Fear Expression in Prefrontal-Amygdala Circuits, was picked up by Biological Psychiatry, one of the most highly cited and well-recognized journals in the field of neuroscience. A few months later, Shansky and her collaborators were notified of the icing on the cake: the paper would be the cover story of the August 2015 print issue of the journal.
The publication centers on how the brain responds to stress on the neuroanatomical level, and differences in fear behavior between males and females. Graduate student Tina Gruene spearheaded the research.
“I gave Tina the project, and she mostly did the whole thing herself,” Shansky said. “She’s amazing.”
The journal cover features a stunning visual of a pyramidal neuron, captured in Shansky’s lab by unique neural imaging technologies. Besides being visually arresting, the high-resolution images allow for more precision in interpretation.
“The better images you have, the more accurate your data are going to be,” Shansky said.
The study itself focuses mainly on a common type of learned fear behavior known as “freezing.” Shansky and Gruene, along with a team of undergraduate assistants, sought out to discover potential differences between male and female responses.
Although they did not report an overall difference in freezing levels for males and females, the researchers did uncover some small but significant differences within subpopulations of both sexes. For example, females with high levels of estrogen showed less freezing than those with low estrogen after extinction conditioning.
The study also suggested an exciting new area for exploration of patterns of fear behavior. Freezing is the outward manifestation of fear most commonly studied by neuroscientists, but Shansky and Gruene also observed a previously unstudied fear response–darting around enclosures.
Shansky is encouraged by this new development. “We’re trying to understand the natural differences in behavior and the neural mechanisms that underlie each of these,” she said. “The darting behavior is a new kind of fear expression that no one has really talked about.”
These recent discoveries as well as ongoing research in Shansky’s lab may have implications regarding current treatment of fear-related disorders in humans, such as Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). According to Shansky, women are twice as likely to develop these conditions, so further research may lead to more gender-specific treatment for anxiety disorders.