UCA biology professor, students conduct neuroscience research

Late on a Friday afternoon rock music wafts from a small radio in a lab in the otherwise deserted Lewis Science Center as five students donning lab coats and protective gloves perform various tasks such as mixing solutions and analyzing tiny matter under powerful microscopes.

Their dedication and teamwork is equal to the magnitude of full-fledged research biologists, but these students are merely undergraduates and graduates who want to be a part of the innovative neuroscience research that is being led by Dr. Barbara Clancy, an assistant professor of biology at UCA.

Blythe Bowman, a senior pre-med/biology major, has worked with Dr. Clancy since the beginning of her sophomore year in 2001. ?I wanted to gain more laboratory experience and learn more techniques than are offered in course labs so I will be a better candidate for any master?s or doctoral program to which I will apply,? she said.

In November, a few of the students got a chance to see the work of some of the biggest names in neuroscience at the annual Society for Neuroscience Conference in New Orleans. More than 30,000 neuroscientists and students from around the world, including the group from UCA, shared their research at poster sessions and presentations.

Bowman said she appreciated the opportunity to attend the conference. ?I loved it,? she said. ?The Society for Neuroscience Conference is a place to discuss current research with other neuroscientists, find lab equipment that will increase our own lab?s efficiency, and learn techniques that can produce better data. It is also a place to network and scatter resumes to prospective graduate and medical schools. Most importantly, the conference provides a forum in which budding professionals like myself can present their research in a scientific format, a privilege usually reserved only for graduate students.?

The project the Bowman and other students from UCA shared at the conference is one of two studies Clancy is supervising that involves the cortex, or outer layer, of the brain.

The study that was presented at the Society for Neuroscience Conference involves discovering the function of subplate cells, which are located in the cortex of the brain, in humans.

?Scientists have always thought these cells went away as humans age, but a ?remnant? population remains in the cortex. No one had ever studied these remaining cells to see what they did until a group of scientists in California about 12 years ago found that these cells were altered in schizophrenia and later another group discovered the same in Alzheimer?s patients,? Clancy said. ?This indicates that this population not simply a remnant but is likely involved in mature brain function, so we want to know what these cells are doing in normal brains.?

Clancy thinks these subplate cells are forming a network that gates information. ?My hypothesis is that these cells form a network that influences cognitive functions, or the way information is received in the cortex of the brain,? she said.

While one group of student researchers assist Clancy with unlocking the mystery of subplate cells, another is conducting studies in collaboration with Dr. K.J.S. Anand at Arkansas Children?s Hospital Research Institute.

This group is examining how the cortex of the brain is affected when premature babies endure some invasive medical procedures without anesthesia. ?These procedures don?t necessarily include surgery, but still they?re invasive procedures that cause pain and distress in tiny babies,? she explained.

According to Clancy, many in the medical field believe pain relief should not be used on premature babies because of the side effects from these medications, others believe that because the brain is not fully developed, premature babies do not experience pain, or at least they don? t remember it.

Clancy believes that premature babies do experience the pain of invasive procedures and that painful medical procedures do have lasting effects on these patients? cognitive and behavioral skills.

Clancy thinks subplate cells are the key to this study as well. ?Subplate cells factor into the way the cortex develops,? she explained. ?They?re very active the last couple of months before birth, which is when most premature babies are born, so we are going to look at how these cells react to pain and anesthesia.?

Clancy and Anand believe the exposure to pain without anesthesia leads to heightened anxiety, memory impairments and an altered response to pain as adults age.

Those collaborating on the project are currently testing their hypotheses on lab rats. The rats are divided into three test groups and two control groups. One test group is anesthetized and given pain, another test group is given pain without anesthesia, and the third group is given anesthesia but no pain. Meanwhile, one control group is ?handled? without treatment and the final control group is left completely alone.

Each group of rats is later tested to see if their cognitive skills, anxiety level and response to pain have been altered. A rat?s memory is tested after training them to find food in a maze. Once the rat becomes trained, the food is taken away to see if the rat can remember its way through the maze to where the food normally would be.

Clancy hopes that if the group?s hypothesis is accepted, it can lead to major changes in the medical field. ?We hope to be able to assist with supplying evidence for a paradigm change that moves toward more comfort for premature babies,? she said.

-Jennifer Boyett