3. Animal Behavioral Neuroscience
Animal Behavioral Research, located at the Shriners Burn Institute, is under the direction of John Levine, MD, PhD, a child psychiatrist and research psychologist, assisted by a post-doctoral molecular biologist Monica Casali, PhD and a research assistant, Antonia Vitalo, BS. This research provides a rat model of stress and resiliency, making the mind body medicine equation more accessible to our manipulations.
In this project, rats are stressed through the use of isolation rearing and are compared to a group rearing in a resilient condition. In our studies rats subjected to isolation stress become hyperactive in open field testing, show immediate early gene (IEG) expression changes in hippocampus, amygdala and medial prefrontal cortex, and poor wound healing when compared to group reared rats. When isolated rats are provided with enriching Nestlets—soft cardboard squares that stimulate nest building behavior—their behavior pattern, brain IEG expression and wound healing move closer to the patterns expressed by group reared resilient rats. We believe that Nestlets can be considered as a RR and resiliency enhancement intervention. Our next generation of studies in collaboration with Dr Mohammed Milad and his lab will look at fear conditioning as another behavioral phenotype. We will also typify the changes further with biomarkers and neuroimaging. By doing so we will understand more deeply why increased stress and diminished resiliency increase vulnerability to disease, in this case poor wound healing, and why providing a stress reducing, resiliency building intervention can improve the equation.
Our unique comparative advantage as an Institute devoted to mind body medicine is our cross fertilizing core research infrastructure as described above. This integrated tripartite structure allows us to pursue the kind of interdisciplinary research that may uncover basic secrets about the mind body unity. In our human model, we will learn how clinical phenotypes are changed by our clinical mind body interventions and will learn how this occurs through the use of biomarkers and psychometrics, as well as blood gene expression profiles and methylation patterns and brain activation patterns. At the same time using our animal model, we will learn how behavioral phenotypes can be changed by our behavioral interventions and uncover the underlying mechanisms using biomarkers as well as blood gene expression profiles and methylation patterns and brain activation patterns. By matching these biological signatures in these 2 models we can be more assured that our findings about mind body causal links are evolutionarily grounded and constitutionally accurate. But moreover, by studying brain biomarkers and genomic and epigenetic fingerprints in our rats and correlating these brain based biological maps that are not accessible in humans, not only with our other animal data, but also with our human data, we stand the chance of cracking the code of the mind body unity.
If achievable, the potential benefit of such knowledge for the health of individuals and communities would be enormous.
While humbled by this daunting research mission, we nevertheless feel the time is right to pursue it given the generous support of our benefactor and the strength of the overall research enterprise which MGH provides.