RESEARCH ACTIVITIES

              Our research attempts to increase understanding of the ways in which we learn and how memories are formed by investigating (1) how brain structures such as the hippocampus mediate learning and memory; (2) how seasonal and photoperiodic changes in brain structure and behavior mediate learning and memory; and (3) the role neurogenesis plays.  A list of publications, presentations, and representative samples of our work can be found by following the publications link.

Unlike other brain areas, the hippocampus of adult birds and mammals retains the capacity for substantial change including the birth of new neurons, neurogenesis, in response to enriched environments, changes in season, performing specific behaviors such as storing and retrieving food, and performing spatial learning tasks.  Hormones are known to promote many aspects of neurogenesis including increasing the survival rate of the new neurons.  Recent research with birds in my lab has found that new hippocampal cells are also born as a result of injury and migrate from an area of the brain, the subventricular zone (SVZ), to the damage site.  Since the hippocampus has retained the ability to recruit new neurons into adulthood, and precurser cells giving rise to these new neurons are known to originate in the SVZ, we are using these results to investigate factors influencing cell birth and eventual differentiation of new cells into neurons and glia.  Within this one model, we investigate neuroscience from systems to cells.  A comparative approach is used by investigating bird species differing in their reliance upon food-storing in the wild.  By comparing neurogenesis in food storing and non food-storing birds, we investigate the ability of the avian hippocampus to respond to a variety of influences in a variety of different circumstances.  Digital tissue databases are being generated, and will include whole brain atlases of a number of bird species.  These may be used by scientists with access to the internet and offer an unparalleled opportunity to share information locally and globally.  Multiple labs may perform procedures remotely thus broadening the scope of research as well.

The ability of the brain to respond to environmental influences, such as hormones and learning experiences, through the process of neurogenesis has exciting scientific potential and profound implications for mental health.  Results of this research could advance our knowledge about loss of neurons and the resulting loss of functions dependent upon them due to advancing age or brain injury.  Investigating the role hormones play may also provide important information leading to effective hormone therapy to (1) alleviate some of the devastating effects of brain injury and damage; (2) protect against further damage; and (3) promote recovery of function.

            Students in the lab are trained on essential aspects of laboratory research in the fields of Learning, Biological Psychology, and Neuroscience.  This includes basic husbandry and ethics involved in the use of animal subjects, behavioral training and testing, tissue processing, gelatin embedding, basic histology (cryoprotecting, fast-freezing, slicing, staining, and coverslipping), advanced histology (immunohistochemical labeling), and computer-assisted microscopy.

COMPUTER ASSISTED MICROSCOPY IMAGING LABORATORY (CAMI)

Our new computer assisted microscopy imaging laboratory provides innovative, state-of-the-art technology to facilitate research and enable rapid and easy exchange of data.  This laboratory is outfitted with Macintosh- and IBM-based microscopy imaging systems comprised of microscopes, CCD cameras, computers, and a variety of imaging software.  The systems provide unbiased stereology capabilities, produce 3-dimensional (3-D) reconstructions, and are being used to establish digital tissue databases that may be accessed via the internet.  Using this laboratory, we can visualize immunofluorescent labeled cells, digitize tissue samples mounted on microscope slides, and generate 3-D images of brain structures.  Images acquired by this and other affiliated labs will expose interested individuals to topical and exciting new research as well as train them in the use of 21st century technology.