Students earn significant traineeships

A total of five current University of Lethbridge students, under the leadership of faculty supervisors Dr. Bryan Kolb, Dr. Robert MacDonald and Dr. Gerlinde Metz, have been named as successful applicants for the Alberta Innovates-Health Solutions (formerly AHFMR) Hotchkiss Brain Institute Provincial Program on Perinatal Determinants of Brain and Mental Health 2010-2011 Traineeships.

Just 11 traineeships were approved by Alberta Innovates this year and the U of L managed to garner five of those 11 positions. As well, alumnus Dr. Simon Spanswick (MSc '05), currently working on post-doctoral studies at the University of Calgary, was awarded another traineeship.

Following are brief descriptions of the successful applicants and their proposed research initiatives.

Robin Keeley (Dr. Robert McDonald) Chronic THC Administration During Puberty and its Effect on Behaviour and Brain Morphology in Adulthood

Keeley is starting her second year as a doctoral candidate at the University of Lethbridge where her thesis will address the effect of chronic recreational drug use during puberty on adult male and female rat behaviour and brain morphology. Focusing on THC, the active component of marijuana, Keeley intends to evaluate gender-specific differences in adult cognition, and brain morphology and electrophysiology in two rat strains following pubertal THC exposure. She will also look at the priming effect of THC as a "gateway drug" whereby increased exposure may induce individuals to develop a propensity towards consuming more rewarding and harmful recreational drugs such as amphetamine.

Dr. Richelle Mychasiuk (Dr. Bryan Kolb) The Effect of Cumulative Experience on Brain Plasticity

In a continuation of the work presented in her doctoral thesis, Mychasiuk will investigate the hypothesis that early experiences alter experience-dependent plasticity later in life. She will conduct anatomical studies and investigate gene methylation and gene expression in brains of rats that have been exposed as pups to a variety of early experiences such as manipulated play partners and play-time, separation stress, or complex environments, followed by nicotine exposure and sensitization, complex housing, or elevated platform stress as juveniles and adults. By focusing on studies of cumulative experiences, Mychasiuk's work will contribute to a better understanding of how brain development is affected, and continues to be affected, by early experiences.

Dr. Farshad Nemati (Dr. Bryan Kolb) Neuroplasticity in Adolescence

Nemati (PhD '08) will continue his studies on neural plasticity that were initially funded under the 2009-2010 AI-HS/HBI Program. In his previous work, Nemati discovered differential neural reorganization and behavioural recovery in adult rats that had received brain injuries at different times in the lifespan. He will now look at the effect of long-term vs. short-term administration of nicotine alone or in combination with complex housing as an experience in rat subjects at two different ages. His results will provide insight into the neural, cognitive and behavioural responses of adults who experience drug addiction as adolescents.

Dr. Fabiola Zucchi (Dr. Gerlinde Metz) Brain MicroRNA (miR) Expression in Response to Prenatal Stress

Zucchi has been successful in obtaining a second year of funding as a post-doctoral fellow from the AI-HS/HBI Program. Zucchi achieved several milestones in her first year of funding towards determining the effects of prenatal and adult stress on brain gene and miR expression, as well as the ability to recover from stroke. She plans to continue the studies of adverse experience on miR expression and gene regulation by exploring molecular correlates of stress at the epigenetic, genetic and behavioural levels. Another objective of her work is to evaluate possible intervention strategies such as massage therapy in reducing the impact of prenatal stress and improving motor recovery after stroke.

Muhammad Arif (Dr. Bryan Kolb) Developmental Factors Related to Drug Addiction

Arif has been awarded funding for a second time under the AI-HS/HBI Program. He previously determined that pre- and postnatal tactile stimulation during development reduced amphetamine-induced behavioural sensitization and, hence, may play a protective role against drug addiction. Building upon the discovery that tactile stimulation has a positive influence on cognitive and social behaviours, he plans to investigate structural plasticity associated with experience (e.g. tactile stimulation) and drugs in modulating brain regions (e.g. reward circuit) with the aim of developing new treatment strategies and public policies to ameliorate drug addiction.