Michael True's plans include more research and, eventually, graduate school.
True is shown here using a cryostat machine, which is used to section brains for
“I have found that hands-on learning is the best way for me to understand what I
have been taught in class,” says psychology
major Michael True ’12. In that case, summer 2010 is providing
the Hampton, Virginia native with plenty of fodder for thought.
True is conducting research in conjunction with R-MC’s Schapiro Undergraduate Research
Fellowship (SURF) program. Each weekday he can
be found in the Copley Science Center, conducting research on Long-Evans rats. He
has also been blogging about his experience. He explains his methodology:
“Almost 120 million people worldwide suffer from depression,” says True. “One theory
Dr. Lambert (psychology) has developed over the years is called effort-driven rewards
(EDR), which suggests that physical effort that yields a desired consequence that
is more rewarding than receiving the desired consequence without relevant effort.
Generations ago people grew gardens, built their own homes and made their clothes.
Now everything can be done with the touch of a button, which takes the physical
effort out of the equation and doesn’t give us a sense of accomplishment. Essentially
Dr. Lambert’s theory is that the meal you spend time creating is more satisfying
to the brain than the one you take out of the freezer and pop in the microwave.
Dr. Lambert believes that as an alternative to pharmaceutical treatments, EDR training
can be a way to create more connections in the brain, specifically between the nucleus
accumbens, the prefrontal cortex, and the striatum, which can lead to increased
resilience to depression.”
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True is testing Lambert’s EDR theory by putting rats through training for five weeks.
The furry critters are divided into two groups: “worker rats,” which have to root
around in corncob bedding to find their edible rewards, and “trust fund rats,” which
are simply given their rewards. “The ‘rewards’ can be found in almost every household,”
explains True. “I use Froot Loops cereal and the rats absolutely love it!”
After the EDR training is complete, True will begin behavioral testing using a Dry
Land Maze (DLM), which tests the rats’ memory and cognitive functioning. “Basically,
I want to know if the ‘worker rats’ can more easily remember where the Froot Loops
are,” he says. The DLM is essentially a big open field with a series of eight wells
built into the floor of the apparatus. Rats have to remember which well has a Froot
Loop in it. “I measure the time it takes the animal to approach the well and then
to eat the Froot Loop.” says True.
There is also one well that is consistently baited throughout all of the training.
On the last day of training, no wells are baited and True measures the time it takes
the rats to approach the well that has been baited the entire time. “I measure the
length of time spent at the well, how many times the rats go back to the well, how
quickly the rats get to the previously baited well, and how many other wells they
visit,” he says. “This gives us a great idea of not only whether they remember where
the reward was, but also how much they’ll search for a reward in other wells.”
True is also interested in the connection between depression and cardiovascular
health. “Depression has been associated with poor cardiovascular health, and several
studies have shown that depression and its associated symptoms represent major risk
factors for the development of cardiovascular disease (CVD),” he explains. “After
the DLM training was completed, I did a series of cardiovascular tests on the animals
that measured the blood volume in their tails, their heart rates and their blood
True will also be conducting brain analyses on the rats. Working with Professor
Catherine Franssen (psychology) and Longwood University Visiting Professor Adam
Franssen, True injected a particular chemical during the behavioral testing that
“allows me to see which cells are dividing and where in the brain this is happening,”
he says. “With a high-powered microscope, I can actually count brain neurons and
compare the ‘worker’ and ‘trust fund’ groups to find out which rats have more neurons
in relevant parts of the brain.”
In addition to behavior and brain research, True will also work with Marshall University
Visiting Professor Massimo Bardi to analyze levels of hormones circulating in the
rats as they solve these behavioral tasks. “Corticosterone is a hormone related
to stress and DHEA is a hormone that seems to indicate resilience to stress,” he
explains. “Instead of subjecting the rats to blood draws, we have collected fecal
samples from the animals—a non-invasive, low-stress method of hormone collection.”
True’s goals include more research and, eventually, graduate school. “My goal is
to submit my research for publication, and next summer I plan on presenting my research
at a conference in Steamboat Springs, Colorado. It’s a great opportunity because
my lab partner Casey Kaufman ’13 and I will be the only undergraduate students there,”
True is excited about his research and the opportunities it offers. “Conducting
my own research has given me the chance to work with my professors and other experts
in the field of psychology,” he says. “Sometimes it can be frustrating when my rats
don’t train as well as I would like or a type of stain on a brain doesn’t come out
as well the directions say it should. But there are days when my research runs perfectly
and I get significant results, which happened to me last week. It was amazing. I
felt like a genuine scientist.”
The SURF program was established in 1995 through a generous gift made by Ben '64 and Peggy Schapiro. The Schapiros continue to support this program, which promotes scholarly undergraduate research by R-MC students in all disciplines.
For information on R-MC’s SURF program, visit http://www.rmc.edu/academics/research.aspx
To read Michael’s blog, visit http://news.rmc.edu/summer/.