Investigating the Brain: Current Neuroscience Research at Skidmore College

Photo Courtesy of Collegeapps.about.com By Nick Toker '15, Mayumi Kohiyama '15, and Sarah Birdsall '15

Everyone has heard the “why go to a liberal arts college” spiel by this time in their careers. But why go to a liberal arts college for Neuroscience? Two major aspects stand out: the interdisciplinary nature of the field and the exciting opportunities for research with faculty. Firstly, the neuroscience major at Skidmore draws from the biology, psychology, chemistry, and computer science majors, allowing students the freedom to choose and focus in on their own specialized interests. Secondly, Skidmore provides the opportunity for hands-on, cutting-edge research with professors. Below is a description of the current projects of six core neuroscience faculty, who study a wide range of neuroscience hot topics—from the therapeutic effects of synthetic cannabinoids to Alzheimer’s disease pathways—and have contributed a tremendous amount of exciting, new research over the past several years.

Dr. Sarita Lagalwar

Dr. Lagalwar’s primary research interests involve understanding the cellular and molecular mechanisms that underlie the vulnerability of specific cell types and brain regions to neurodegenerative disease. Her research is currently focused on Spinocerebellar Ataxia Type-1, a fatal neurodegenerative disease similar to Huntington’s disease. Her laboratory incorporates many cutting-edge techniques, including advanced microscopic analysis and genetic manipulation. Her research has recently revealed novel information about disease propagation and mitochondrial dynamics in disease states in model systems.

Dr. Jennifer Bonner

Dr. Jennifer Bonner is interested in how our genes control the development of our nervous system. To do so, she utilizes the common fish species Danio rerio, or the zebrafish. This small transparent fish possesses a complex nervous system similar to our own, and makes an excellent model for studying development. Dr. Bonner primarily uses confocal laser scanning microscopy to visualize fluorescently tagged proteins that can indicate the path of nervous system development. She has also recently been investigating the effects of fluoxetine (Prozac) and cannabinoid use in early life on nervous system development using this model system. Her work has great potential to inform us not only about the normal course of our brain’s development but about how and why this course can be altered in early life.

Dr. Rebecca Howard

Dr. Howard focuses primarily on ethanol modulation and the mechanism of action of general anesthetics with respect to the central nervous system. To do this, she utilizes the bacterial version of nicotinic acetylcholine receptors known as the Gloebacter Ligand-gated Ion Channel (GLIC). This cation-selective channel has been crystallized with different general anesthetics and allows for insight into how ethanol impacts the structure of ligand-gated ion channels. Through neurophysiological studies, the specific location where general anesthetics and ethanol bind can be found and investigated, which further allow us to isolate which ion channels are responsible for the physiological effects of ethanol and general anesthetics.

Dr. Bernard Possidente

Dr. Possidente, Professor of Biology, conducts research on the biological clock mechanisms that control daily endogenous rhythms, or circadian rhythms, in mouse and fruit fly models. Generally speaking, Dr. Possidente’s research involves the pharmacological, photoperiod, and genetic manipulation of research. Perhaps one of Dr. Possidente’s most intriguing model organisms is the Alzheimer’s fly, which expresses the amyloid beta peptide known to be involved in AD progression. Recently, in a collaboration with University College London and the Cambridge Institute for Medical Research, Dr. Possidente and colleagues found that the Alzheimer’s fruit flies showed a disruption of circadian behavioral activity with age, despite fully functional molecular behavior in central clock neurons.

Dr. Flip Phillips

Dr. Phillips, a professor of psychology and neuroscience studies human perception and action, a subset of which focuses on visual and haptic (touch) perception. Professor Phillips has researched in depth the superiority of either haptic or visual shape discrimination, and which is superior to the other in active perception. In a recent study, participants were asked to judge whether a pair of artificial stimuli, (inanimate star-like shapes) or natural stimuli, plastic bell peppers, had the same or different shape using only vision, only touch, or both senses to discriminate the shape of the object. Although the study showed that neither vision nor touch were more important in shape perception, participants were better at figuring out natural shapes than the artificial shapes. A current senior thesis further investigates visual object discrimination, using eye-tracking experiments to figure out which aspects of objects are used for shape perception.

Dr. Hassan Lopez

Dr. Hassan Lopez is a professor of psychology and neuroscience, and the current chair of the neuroscience department at Skidmore College. He teaches physiological psychology, giving undergraduate students practical laboratory experience handling rodent subjects and administering behavioral tests. He has previously investigated the physiological basis of sexual attraction and motivation in females, and is currently interested in the anticonvulsive properties of cannabidiol in epilepsy. A pilot study being conducted now at Skidmore is trying to determine whether cannabidiol treatment can prevent or lessen the effects of epileptic-type seizures. These investigations are particularly relevant given the current national debate about the legalization of marijuana, of which cannabidiol is a constituent, for both medical and recreational purposes. Hassan Lopez’s research is yet another example of the provocative, exciting, and relevant research being conducted in neuroscience at Skidmore College.

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