Behavioral neuroscience is the study of behavior as a function of brain activity. As a discipline, it has a close relationship with such fields as neurophysiology, experimental neuroanatomy, and neurochemistry; hence the necessity of multidisciplinary approaches. Members of the department of psychology collaborate with other neuroscientists in the departments of biology, physical therapy, and pharmacy at Northeastern and throughout the Boston area.
Extensive research facilities are available for investigations in behavioral neuroscience, ranging from immunohistochemical techniques to ultra-high field magnetic resonance imaging. These are described below in conjunction with individual faculty research programs.
Specialization: Developmental effects of the environment on adolescent behavior, anatomy, and neuroinflammation
Dr. Brenhouse’s lab studies the dynamic interaction between the brain, the body, and the environment throughout early life and adolescent development. Adverse or traumatic experience during early life is a known risk factor for the development of mental illness; however, the manifestation of disease does not typically occur until years after the adverse event. Using animal models with genetic, behavioral, and pharmacological manipulation, her laboratory investigates in why this occurs, and how we might prevent it. Specifically, Dr. Brenhouse’s research focuses on how early life stress alters the development of inhibitory interneurons within the prefrontal cortex (PFC). Since stress plays an important role in the interaction of the brain with our immune system, her lab tries to measure how early life stress affects inflammatory responses and subsequently leads to PFC interneuron damage and behavioral dysfunction later in life. By manipulating early environment, receptor expression, or inflammatory molecules within the PFC, we can shed light on how (and when) the brain responds to developmental disturbances, and how these responses translate into vulnerability to psychiatric disorders.
Specialization: Developmental Risk and Protective Factors
Dr. Ferris’s research focuses on developmental behavioral neuroscience. Specific interests include the plasticity of the brain and how early emotional and environmental risk factors alter social and cognitive behaviors. Risk factors include drugs of abuse like cocaine and alcohol and social subjugation in the context of dominant/subordinate relationships. The laboratory uses standard molecular and neurobiological techniques to study the brains of rodents. In addition, ultra-high field magnetic resonance imaging is used as a non-invasive tool for developmental studies in monkeys, enabling one to follow changes in brain structure, chemistry, and function in the same animal over the course of its life. The goal of the research is to better understand the brain mechanisms contributing to mental illness and drug addiction, in the hopes of improving psychosocial and psychopharmacologic intervention strategies.
Specialization: Prenatal Exposure to Drugs of Abuse
Dr. Jackson’s research focuses on the effects of prenatal exposure to psychomotor stimulants (i.e., amphetamine, cocaine, etc.) on brain monoaminergic systems in developing rodent offspring. Her research group examines the impact of drug-induced alterations of these monoaminergic systems on post-synaptic function. These studies are particularly relevant to the issues of permanent neurological deficits in children exposed to stimulant drugs in utero, and to the development of more effective and specific drug therapies. A major goal of this research is to characterize short- and long-term effects of prenatal drug exposure in rat offspring. Of particular interest is elucidating these effects at the neuroanatomical and biochemical levels. The neuroanatomical studies involve the use of immunocytochemical staining techniques to visualize cells in the brain and a computer-assisted image analysis system for quantification of drug effects. Neurochemical investigations are aimed at elucidating the functional consequences of drug-induced anatomical alterations. Ongoing studies utilize an in vitro slice preparation and in vivo brain microdialysis to measure basal and evoked neurotransmitter release.
Specialization: Adolescent Substance Use and Molecular Neurobiology of Behavior
Laboratory: Developmental and Molecular Neurobiology Laboratory
Dr. Melloni studies the developmental and molecular neurobiology of aggressive behavior. The primary focus of this research is to characterize the effects of drug use and social stress during critical phases of neural development on the molecular regulation of aggression. Three current research projects using animal models investigate: (1) the neurobiology of aggression following anabolic steroid and cocaine exposure during adolescent development; (2) the neurobiology of social subjugation (i.e. the acquisition of submissive behavior as the result of repeated physical defeat) during early neural development; and (3) the neurobiological consequences of exposure to psychiatric drugs used to treat aggression in clinical youth populations. Present studies employ evolving molecular biological methods and immunohistochemical procedures to investigate neuronal gene expression and development following experimental treatment. In addition, studies focused on the identification and characterization of novel biological markers of excessive, inappropriate aggression are underway currently in the laboratory using a population of high risk, aggressive, psychiatrically referred children and adolescents as a model.
Specialization: Sex Differences in Stress and Fear
Dr Shansky’s lab studies how changes in neuronal connectivity can translate into behavioral changes after a stressful event. A disruption of communication between the prefrontal cortex and amygdala can lead to abnormal fear responses, and the lab combines behavioral testing with high-level microscopy to identify the neuroanatomical markers associated with individual variation in the expression of fear. Current research probes potential sex differences in these effects, and how ovarian hormones like estrogen can interact with neurotransmitters to produce unique fear responses and memories in females.