Saturday, August 3, 2013

My Saturday With Rats

Hey there anonymous reader,

Today's Saturday, and while all my friends are sleeping in or watching Saturday morning cartoons (or something of that nature), I'm hanging out in the lab. In fact, this is one of about five Saturdays I've spent in the lab during the summer. Why? There are certain experiments which have to be carried out over a series of consecutive days for them to be considered valid. I guess science doesn't have "business days."

 Saturday lab selfie, no shame.

What am I doing today? Good question, anonymous reader! Today I'm on the third day of a conditioning experiment (which I mentioned in my last blog post), continuing my study of testing the motivational effects of nicotine on different strains of rats. I'm also testing a new procedure with a pilot group of rats to see if it would be worthwhile for our lab to pursue further. 

What even is conditioning, doe? Cool your jets, anonymous reader, and I'll tell you. Fun fact: I've decided to start using the phrase "cool your jets" more often in everyday speak, what do you think? Anyway, conditioning is the middle step of the conditioned place preference (CPP) paradigm which I've been working with for most of the summer. CPP is basically a form of Pavlovian conditioning which pairs a previously neutral environment with a stimulus (which could be either pleasant or aversive) to eventually create a conditioned response in which the environment itself creates the response.

Here's an example: Say you drink a big glass of water every day before you leave the office. Right when you get through your front door of your home and take off your shoes, you go to the bathroom and pee. You do this every day for a while, and it sort of becomes a routine. One day, you don't have a glass of water before leaving work. When you walk through the door at home and take off your shoes, you still feel the sensation as though you have to pee even though you didn't drink anything. Your brain has associated the environmental stimulus of your doorway with the sensation of having to pee - you've been conditioned. There are some really cool studies which demonstrate this change in neural pathways to elicit conditioning responses in the brain. Ask me about them.

For the rats, I use visual cues (either the dark or light side of a box) and pair them with a stimulus (nicotine) to see if it will elicit a behavioral response. I use software to track their movement and see how it has changed from a baseline. One of the things I'm studying is how my ADHD rat models change behavior in response to nicotine compared to my control "normal" rats.

How are you spending your Saturday, anonymous reader. I'm spending mine with my rats, doing something I love. 


Monday, July 15, 2013

The Rat Pack

What is the proper way to begin a new blog post?

That works. First I wanted to apologize for not using any sort of closing salutation on my last post. I wasn't sure what the protocol was for ending blog posts, but after reading a few it seems as though it is a standard thing to do. I'm also very sorry for not posting sooner, anonymous reader, but I've been rather busy lately. I'll admit also that I'm still quite unsure about my blogging abilities and continue to experience a lot more anxiety than I expected about periodical blog posts. I'll trudge onward nonetheless, just for you, anonymous reader.

I've been doing a lot of really cool things (in my opinion) this summer working with the Center for Comparative NeuroImaging! Here are some of the highlights:

Meeting the Father of Modern Stress Research - This may not seem like a huge deal to most, but I was pretty stoked to meet Bruce McEwen, a brilliant neuroendocrinologist from Rockefeller University. When I told my mom about it she wasn't very impressed, but all of us at the lab were in a frenzy to prepare for this (relatively) famous scientist. Pro tip: don't expect your mom to be as excited about nerdy things as you are. At UMass, Dr. McEwen lectured on the molecular mechanisms of stress in the brain and then had lunch with a few of us from the CCNI. Dr. McEwen's research is fascinating as it links actual behavioral/physiological responses in humans to molecular and cellular underpinnings. Though his work primarily deals with stress in the brain, he provided some valuable insights into our research, as stress and mental disorders are deeply intertwined.

Becoming a famous TV star (almost) - A few weeks ago, a crew team from PBS Japan visited the CCNI as part of a documentary on brain studies and neuroimaging. Though the film mostly focused on the work of our director, Jean King, they included a few shots of our laboratory methods. We got the lab all dolled up (and by that I mean we shredded boxes and boxes of old files) as the camera crews rolled in. If you watch PBS Japan anytime soon, maybe you'll be able to spot me in the background or see my name on a lab coat.

Presenting my findings - Also a few weeks ago, I presented my preliminary findings on my study on the motivational effects of nicotine on individuals with ADHD. I'll go into more details in later posts (and I'll even attach some fancy graphs if you're lucky), but basically I used a study design called conditioned place preference to compare the conditioned preferences of SHR rats to nicotine with control SD and WKY rats. I mentioned SHR rats in my last post, but they are a strain of rat typically regarded as the best animal model for ADHD. My findings were unclear, due to a small sample size, so I decided to replicate my study using a larger sample size. I'm currently in the process of repeating my procedure with more rats and I'll update (eventually) when I'm finished.

Those are the major happenings of my internship, so far. The rest of my time has been spent shoving rats into MRI tubes, looking at images of rat brains, watching rats move around a small box, and trying to figure out why my rats aren't doing the things they are supposed to be doing. I imagine this doesn't sound super exciting to the layperson, but I'm having a stellar time doing it. And, if I keep it up and other foreign TV stations get interested, it might just make me famous.

Thanks for reading again, anonymous reader. Cheers!

Tuesday, June 18, 2013


Hi, hello, greetings, what's the hap? Welcome to my blog!

My name is Matt Thompson and I'm a rising senior at Clark University, interning at the Center for Comparative NeuroImaging (CCNI) at UMass Memorial Medical School. I'm doing so through funding from a Barth Scholarship, which I thoroughly appreciate. I started my internship experience in mid-May (the week after finals ended), and I apologize for waiting so long to start this blog. I mostly procrastinated because I'm entirely clueless about blogging and needed to prepare myself emotionally. Am I linking things too much? Don't bother clicking on that link. Does anyone actually read these? Feel free to comment with any feedback, anonymous reader.

Now that the formalities are finished, I can talk about what I'm actually passionate about: brain research. The CCNI studies the brain, cognition, and behavior using primarily fMRI technology, behavioral tests, and biochemical analysis. At the Center, neuroscientists and psychiatrists study a range of neurobiological topics, including ADHD, addiction, schizophrenia, and maternal behavior. My colleagues at the CCNI conduct both animal and human studies, but my research deals with animal models using rats primarily (hence the title of the blog). 

Here's some of the little buggers

My role is to help with ongoing studies and conduct a few of my own, bridging the gap between the ADHD studies and the ongoing addiction research at the CCNI. Attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) is a psychiatric disorder which affects roughly 6-7% of children worldwide and has significant downstream effects on learning, memory, and cognition. Individuals with ADHD are roughly 2.65 times more likely to use nicotine (generally in the form of cigarettes) than those without the disorder. Why? Good question. That's one of the things I plan to study. 

Here's some science (pro tip: skip this paragraph if you don't care about science). Some studies show that in low doses, nicotine can improve cognitive functioning and boost memory performance. Nicotine serves as an agonist of the nicotinic acetylcholine receptor in the brain. This receptor is present all over the brain, but most importantly is found within the prefrontal cortex (associated with higher cognitive functioning and planning) and the hippocampus (associated with learning and memory). It is also involved in the dopaminergic reward pathway, which is likely to be the reason that it's considered one of the most addictive drugs.

Where do the rats come into play? Another great question. It's rather unethical to take out people's brains and look at them (and I'm quite unqualified), but that can be done using rats. Pro tip: if you're unequivocally, irrefutably against using animals for brain research, don't read this blog. I'm working now with a strain of rats called spontaneously hypertensive rats which display ADHD behaviors, such as impulsivity and hyperactivity. That way, I can study the disorder and nicotine addiction in a slightly more ethical way.
I'll continue to blog about what I've been doing for the past month in the lab, and maybe I'll get more of a grasp about what this whole blogging thing is about! Thanks for joining, anonymous reader, and I hope you enjoy what I have to say.

I struggled coming up with a title for this blog post, so I settled simply on "Introduction." Each scientific paper published in a journal begins with a section titled "Introduction," so I thought it was fitting. My goal for the summer is to come up with more clever blog post titles.