BA, Harvard University (Biochemistry), 1990; PhD, Duke University (Neurobiology), 2002;
Post-doctoral Research Fellow, Cornell University (Neurobiology and Behavior), 2002-2006.
To both scientists and the larger public, the inner workings of the brain pose some of the most compelling and complex unsolved problems in science. To be sure, great progress has been made over the past century in understanding the physiology, biochemistry, and molecular genetics of nerve cell function; how these cells communicate by electrical and chemical signals; how different parts of the brain are connected; and how these connections form during development. Yet fundamental questions remain:
These are some of the fundamental questions of modern neurobiology, and are the questions which frame my own research and teaching at Gettysburg College.
In tackling the first of these questions, how the brain mediates behavior, it is important to consider modern concepts of the evolutionary biology. From an evolutionary perspective, there is a profound and dynamic interrelationship between natural selection and behavior. That is, how an animal finds food, evades predators, searches for and courts mates, raises its young, and competes or cooperates with others all have strong effects on reproductive success. Thus, there is often strong selection pressure on the the structure and function of the neural circuits producing these behaviors, and in order to understand both how and why certain behaviors, including human behaviors, exist, we will need to explore how behavior is dynamically driven by circuits of neurons within the brain.
My own work explores the neural circuits involved in vocal communication behaviors in different species of toadfish. These fish hum, grunt, and growl to attract mates and warn off competitors, as do many other vertebrates. Interestingly, the same neural circuits that drive vocal communication in fish appear to underlie vocalization in birds and mammals, including humans. So by understanding how these circuits work in fish, we hope to gain a clearer picture of how these circuits have evolved, and how they might operate in us. I, and students in my lab, will use a variety of techniques to examine the anatomical connectivity of these circuits, to record and analyze the electrical activity of neurons in these circuits contributing to vocal behaviors, and to examine the neurochemistry of the vocal circuit. Many of the same neurotransmitters and neuromodulatory chemicals involved in vocalization in mammals appear to have similar functions in fish. These include chemicals such as arginine-vasotocin, dopamine, and serotonin. A variety of complex human disorders (including schizophrenia, panic disorders, and manic depression) are likely to involve problems with these neurochemicals, yet we know very little about how they act naturally in the healthy brain to shape behavior. The brain circuits involved in vocal production in fish provide a discrete neural circuit, involved in producing a specific behavior, in which to test different ideas about how these chemicals shape behavior.