NIEHS has established a new in-house resource, the Neurobehavioral Core Laboratory, housed in the Neurobiology Laboratory (NL). Neurobiologist and behavioral psychologist Jesse Cushman, Ph.D., arrived Sept. 19 to run the new facility.
“Cushman’s talent and expertise will transform every NL group, providing critically needed behavioral expertise and advice, and helping our trainees learn exceedingly valuable tools for brain science to further their careers,” said Jerry Yakel, Ph.D., head of the NL. “Now, any in-house lab with interest in doing behavioral tests will be able to utilize the core," he added.
Specialized tools and expertise
Researchers and trainees in labs at NIEHS perform their experiments in well-equipped facilities, yet there are nearly always specialized tools that individual groups cannot afford to provide on their own. To meet this need, NIEHS offers a network of support groups, or cores, that work across divisions and laboratories. The cores provide state-of-the art instruments and tools, and expert assistance in designing experiments and interpreting results.
“It’s becoming increasingly critical to have a behavioral functional component in biomedical research, especially with neuroscience, where we connect changes in the brain to changes in behavior,” Cushman explained. “Learning how to conduct behavioral studies and learning how to make the connections are critical for trainees here at NIEHS.”
Insights into learning and behavior
Animal subjects cannot talk to scientists about their experiences. But for the trained observer, their behaviors can speak volumes about their memory, learning, and neurological health.
With more than 15 validated mazes and assays already, and more to come, the facility gives in-house researchers and trainees the opportunity for hands-on experience. They can learn how to test and interpret the ways that specific behaviors may reflect psychiatric and neurological conditions triggered by environmental exposures and gene-environment interactions.
Cushman is already looking forward to adding leading-edge testing to the core’s resources, with a new technique known as optogenetics. This approach combines genetics and optics to study and control well-defined events within specific cells of living tissue.
“With optogenetics, scientists can causally connect specific neural activity with a behavioral outcome,” Cushman explained. “This technique can help researchers figure out the wiring of the brain and how it connects directly to behavior.”
Cushman joined NIEHS after 12 years as a student, trainee, researcher, and professor at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA). For the past three years, he supervised the Behavioral Testing Core Facility there.
He has authored more than 20 peer-reviewed studies in leading scientific journals, including Cell, Science, and Nature Neuroscience, as well as two book chapters. Cushman has also served as a peer reviewer for five journals that specialize in psychology, neuroscience, and neurology.
(Eddy Ball, Ph.D., is a contract writer with the NIEHS Office of Communications and Public Liaison.)