Senior Kim Bixby confers with Professor Win Watson on how best to analyze slides. (Perry Smith photo)
Why the popular new major neuroscience and behavior is creating exciting collaborations across campus.
By 9 a.m. on a Friday morning, Kim Bixby, a senior from Portsmouth, R.I., has already dissected a horseshoe crab with the help of Win Watson, professor of zoology. They started at 7:30. Now she’s learning how to prepare the horseshoe crab’s brain for staining with antibodies. It’s a painstaking process that will take several days. But Bixby takes it all in stride; after all she’s already worked for two and a half years in psychology professor Jill McGaughy’s lab. Initially a psychology major, when the new neuroscience and behavior major was approved last year, she switched over. “Psychology interested me for the ‘why’ questions, and the biological sciences challenged me to discover the ‘how’ questions. With the new major, I get to explore both,” Bixby notes.
At first the major’s disciplines may seem disparate—psychology, zoology, biology, chemistry, and physics. And the subjects studied are also wide-ranging from sea slugs and lobsters to birds and rats to humans. But they all share the structure, function, and chemistry of neural networks and brains. At UNH, faculty expertise in this field, regardless of academic unit, has grown and now commands considerable academic stature. Given the dedication, passion, and collegiality of the faculty, combined with student enthusiasm, this year enrollment in the new major has jumped to about 100 students.
As Watson goes over another procedure, he says, “I inject about three milliliters of blue dye to stain the brain so we can see it better when we section it. There, now we’ll just let him sit for awhile.”
Bixby observes all of this closely. When she begins work on her honors thesis this procedure will be fundamental. The blue stain highlights the horseshoe crab’s neurons so when thin brain slices are mounted on a slide, the neurons will be clearly visible. Bixby will be looking for what’s known as the “clock” neurons. These clocks generate the horseshoe crab’s biological rhythms. She’ll also identify the hormones that are used to communicate between the clocks and the neural circuits that produce locomotion. In short, what mechanisms tell a horseshoe crab when to migrate to shore to mate during high tides and when to retreat before the tides recede?
As Watson sets up a sample slide, he muses, “Animals have all sorts of clock cells. Horseshoe crabs have been around forever. If we figure out their clocks, we’re more likely to discover a rule as well as an adaptation.”
Watson’s groundbreaking research on lobsters has explored how they navigate, reproduce, feed, and migrate. His research has had many immediate applications that have contributed to better management of that fishery. He also conducts research at the Coastal Marine Lab and off a research vessel. So, in addition to teaching and his lab schedules, at any given moment, Watson knows what the tide is in Great Bay Estuary along with the chop, temperature, visibility, and salinity. Right now, he’s also thinking about lobsters on the move, because it’s fall and that’s when they migrate to deeper water. Their clocks kick in. If Watson and Bixby can decode the horseshoe crab’s clocks, they’ll likely understand the lobster’s clocks as well.
Like many in this major, Bixby is deciding whether or not to go medical school or graduate school. The choice is between direct patient interactions as a doctor versus working as a researcher to make new discoveries.
To help with that decision, last summer Bixby did informational interviews with ten neurologists and five neuropsychotherapists. She’s also observed three neurosurgeries.
Additionally, she interned at the Krempels Brain Injury Foundation as a group facilitator and worked with occupational therapists and physical therapists. “Most of the clients there have had brain tumors, strokes, or car accidents. I cofacilitated several groups. One was called ‘reminiscing’ where we used the five senses to trigger memories,” Bixby says. “I also did one-on-one interviews to gain insight into their recovery process. The academic texts I studied literally came to life. I got so I could tell what part of someone’s brain was injured. Often I would leave at the end of a day and just cry. Yet the energy at Krempels was so positive and inspiring. It was really this one-on-one experience that has given me the drive to work with people versus research. So, I plan to go to medical school.”
(l to r) Graduate student Ben Wormwood, junior Drew Blake, and Professor Bob Mair discuss the research project. (Perry Smith photo)
This fall, Drew Blake, from Bedford, N.H., is in the midst of completing his summer research fellowship in psychology professor Bob Mair’s lab.
“Even before the new major, I was planning to specialize,” says Blake, who was at first a general biology major. “There’s so much we don’t know about the brain and the new technology is really cool. For example, with real time fMRIs you can actually see where in the brain someone’s answer is coming from.
“And, with sensors, you can implant one in a specific part of the brain and record which cells are firing while the animal is responding.”
As a first-semester junior Blake has steamed through most of his major requirements. In Watson’s neurobiology of behavior, Blake recalls: “We learned how electricity moves down a neuron—Ohm’s law. I was taking physics at the same time and it was a weird overlap. It’s amazing how electricity in cells can give rise to a subjective experience such as anger or any other emotion.”
But, what has mattered most to Blake are the opportunities he was given as early as his first year to work in research labs. Prior to beginning this research project, Blake had spent 30 hours in the Leber Cognitive Control Lab and more than 150 hours in the Mair Lab. “I had to choose between the two labs. I chose Mair’s lab because it emphasized the biology more than the Leber lab,” Blake says.
Mair is known internationally for his research on neurobiology models of memory loss. Over the course of his career, he has been awarded more than $2 million in grant funds. His research on the roles of different thalamic-related systems in remembering contributes to work on such brain disorders as Korsakoff’s disease and Alzheimer’s disease. His research uses rats as the experimental subject.
Blake’s research project, “The Effects of Subiculum on Pre-Frontal Cortex in Spatial Memory Tasks,” is a joint venture led by graduate student Ben Wormwood. The subiculum is part of the brain’s hippocampal formation, a structure that has long been thought to help regulate spatial relations. This experiment will test the role of projections that originate in subiculum and terminate in prefrontal cortex, a part of the brain that mediates working memory.
For Mair, Wormwood, and Blake—this research continues to fill in the puzzle of how memories are stored and retrieved in the brain. The results of their studies will help explain how brain disorders interfere with the ability to remember.
For Blake, this project provides research experience that will help inform his career choice as he contemplates applying either to medical school or graduate school.
Ingredients for success
When Mair, Watson, and other neuroscience faculty members talk about the success of the new major, there’s a sense of wonder. In the past decade, enrollments in their introductory courses have doubled. As they casually analyze it, they cite better high school preparation, the Internet, and the influence of shows like Nova. Also they note that many students have mentioned knowing someone with a traumatic brain injury or having a relative with Alzheimer’s disease, both increasingly familiar health concerns.
Naturally, as neuroscientists their thoughts turn to the technological advances that have spurred so many discoveries, beginning in the 1980s with the first tools for visualizing the activity of brain systems in living subjects and for studying neural signaling in single nerve cells.
Having a critical mass of faculty members has been essential, but launching a new major takes passion, and all credited the determination of zoology professor Michelle Scott, now recently retired. The development of facilities and other on-campus resources such as the Hubbard Center for Genome Studies have made a difference as well.
“We’ve got some wonderful students…” said one.
“It’s being done by the pure love of doing it,” said another.
“And there’s still so much we don’t know…”
For more information on the neuroscience and behavior major, visit http://neuroscience.unh.edu/.
We’d like to thank Margaret (Peggy) Stockwell Cole ’72 and her husband Robert C. Cole Jr. for their establishment of the Cole Neuroscience and Behavior Faculty Research Fund. For more information on how you can make a difference at UNH, please visit www.foundation.unh.edu.
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