Our laboratory studies the relation between neuroendocrine activity and behavior, particularly during development. Hormones (endocrines) have important influences on adaptive behavior. But not all effects of hormones are adaptive. For instance, prolonged activation of the body’s primary stress-related neuroendocrine system, the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis, may impair both our physical and mental health. Because psychological “stressors”, such as exposure to novel or uncertain situations, can activate the HPA axis, and because other psychological factors, such as the presence of an important social companion (an attachment figure) can inhibit HPA activation, psychological factors may have important influences on our well being. Young organisms appear to be particularly susceptible to such effects. Therefore, it is important to better understand how behavior, psychological factors, and endocrine activity are related in young organisms.
Most of our basic studies use guinea pigs as subjects. Guinea pigs are ideal for this work because they exhibit a complex social system; the young display evidence of attachment to their mothers; and, like in humans and other primates, social factors have a large impact on neuroendocrine responses. Recent basic studies have examined:
- How neuroendocrine and immune responses interact to affect behavior during isolation
- The brain regions underlying the effect of separation on behavior and HPA activity
- The reduction of stress-related behaviors following treatment with anti-inflammatory agents
- How the ability of certain classes of companions to reduce HPA activity may be related to developmental changes in social preferences in maturing guinea pigs
In our applied work, we are using principles derived from our and other’s basic research to find ways to reduce neuroendocrine and behavioral stress responses in dogs confined in animal shelters. One goal is to improve the welfare of dogs in shelters. Even in well-run, modern animal shelters, dogs are confronted with an array of psychological stressors known to elevate HPA activity. Therefore, with the help of local animal shelters, we are studying ways in which interventions might moderate HPA and behavioral responses to stress. A second goal is to improve adoption success. Dogs adopted from shelters often exhibit behavioral problems such as “separation anxiety”. Behavior problems frequently result in dogs being returned to the shelter. We hypothesize that many of these problems stem from stressful experiences inherent in confinement. We hope to improve adoption success by reducing the stress response of shelter dogs. Our applied studies have examined:
- Influences of “petting” and other forms of human interaction on HPA activity and behavior of shelter dogs.
- The relation of HPA activity in the shelter to behavior after adoption
- Possible dysregulation of HPA activity in shelter dogs
- The effect of socialization in a prison on behavior and HPA activity in shelter dogs
Student assistants in the lab are typically undergraduate psychology (behavioral neuroscience concentration) or biology majors, or are graduate students in interdisciplinary Biomedical Sciences Ph.D. program or the Department of Neuroscience, Cell Biology and Physiology’s master’s program in anatomy.