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Prof. researches the effects of stress on memory with rats

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John Howland tests the effects stress has on rats’ ability to learn and make decisions by using touch screens.
John Howland tests the effects stress has on rats’ ability to learn and make decisions by using touch screens.

John Howland, a psychology professor at the University of Saskatchewan, is researching the effects of stress on memory and cognitive functions by placing rats in boxes with touch screens.

Howland’s experiment places a rat in a box where it learns to touch one of the two images shown on the touch screen in order to receive a food reward. Then the rat is put into a small tube for 30 minutes, where it is stressed by its inability to move. Once back in the box, the rat is expected to learn and respond to a different image in order to win the food reward.

The boxes record how long it takes the rat to choose an image, which image it chooses and where it moves within the box.

Howland has found that the rats’ reaction time improves with stress, and it learns the new rewarding image much faster.

Howland, who specializes in behavioral neuroscience, has recorded the effects of stress on rats’ behavior over the past five years. He has also done similar experiments. His other research interests include animal models of schizophrenia, epilepsy and synaptic plasticity.

Despite extensive work being done on how stress affects behaviour, Howland said that little is known about what occurs in a rats’ brain that leads to changes in its behaviour.

Howland said he hopes to start researching the effects stress has on individual neurons in the rats’ brain once he receives new boxes that record the rat’s brain activity. His timeline is about one year.

The new boxes are provided by the $70,000 grant Howland received from the National Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada to continue his research.

Howland has previously done research on the changes in rats’ brain activity due to stress. During these experiments the rats were anesthetized because it was too difficult to record their brain activity while they were able to move. Their brains were artificially stimulated in a manner that would be similar to what would happen if they were actually doing the task in the box.

Howland can now study behavioral changes and brain activity simultaneously.

“The goal is to be able to say that these exact cells changed their activity at this exact time while this pattern of behaviour was going on,” Howland said.

Eventually, Howland hopes to apply his rat experiment to how the human brain functions. Although human brains are more complex, Howland said we share similarities with rats. The area of the brain that learns how to make decisions is especially alike.

“We’re trying to look at common mechanisms and really just get a sense of what brain areas are doing to [other] brain areas,” Howland said.

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