WWU faculty and students explore the depths of the mind
Story by Mary Lane Gallagher
Jon Bale explains that the clear liquid he’s carefully dripping into a glass test tube in the laboratory contains neurotransmitters, the chemicals that allow brain cells to communicate with each other.
Working on a research project studying brain neurochemistry with Associate Professor of Psychology Janet Finlay, Bale is getting important research experience for a student who aspires to become a neurologist.
But Bale knows the real beneficiary of his long hours in the lab are people with schizophrenia, like those he once met while accompanying a doctor treating psychiatric patients.
Those troubled by hallucinations could find relief with medication, Bale saw. But medicine didn’t seem to alleviate other symptoms like extreme emotional detachment or disorientation even though, as he says, they can be just as debilitating.
Finlay is most interested in these so-called “cognitive” symptoms of the disease, which also include loss of short-term memory and attention deficits, all of which can make it impossible for people to live on their own. And those are the symptoms she’s targeting with her research.
“In this lab, we’re working on (research) that can go on to help people,” Bale says. “It’s a very real experience for me.”
Finlay, Bale and other student researchers are studying the anatomy of the prefrontal cortex, the part of the brain that governs high-level reasoning and helps us navigate social interactions. They’re studying structural abnormalities in the prefrontal cortex and their link to the symptoms of schizophrenia.
Dozens of WWU students like Bale are working alongside faculty researchers in WWU’s four-year-old Behavioral Neuroscience program, an interdisciplinary effort of the Psychology and Biology departments.
While neuroscience programs are common at large research-oriented universities, it’s rare to find a program like this at a university like Western, where undergraduate education is the focus, says Finlay, the program’s director.
“I have worked with more undergraduates in the lab in one quarter at Western than I did in 10 years at the University of Pittsburgh,” Finlay says. At large universities such as the University of Pittsburgh, she says, the emphasis is generally on training graduate students and postdoctoral fellows.
At WWU, each faculty member in the Behavioral Neuroscience program is conducting research with the help of up to 10 undergraduate research assistants. That means students leave WWU better prepared for doctoral programs, medical school and jobs in the biomedical research field, she says.
Finlay says the goal of the program is to train undergraduates in the “four cornerstones” of brain science: physiology, chemistry, behavioral analysis and anatomy. Faculty research areas range from schizophrenia and brain injury to memory and addiction.
She’s proud of the faculty who’ve come to the program. Many have impressive research experience: Assistant Professor Jackie Rose, for example, published an article this year in the prestigious neuroscience journal Neuron.
Other faculty members include Professor Roger Anderson, associate professors Mike Mana and Jeff Grimm, and assistant professors Jose Serrano-Moreno, Heather Van Epps and Kelly Jantzen.
“I just can’t believe the faculty we’ve been able to bring together,” Finlay says.
Behavioral Neuroscience got an important boost from the state Legislature in 2007, when they provided some enhanced funding for the program partly to promote the state’s biomedical research industry.
And just as importantly, Finlay says, students got excited about studying brains, too, drawn to a field that combines biology, chemistry and psychology. The program started small and remains selective, with 17 students now working toward a Bachelor of Arts in Behavioral Neuroscience.
All the students “felt like they had discovered the area themselves,” Finlay says.
Take John Harkness (’09), who calls himself “an ultimate success story for General University Requirements.” Harkness was interested in business, or perhaps philosophy, when he took a Psychology 101 class for a GUR.
He found his home.
Fascinated with the possibility of studying both human behavior and the biology and chemistry of the brain, Harkness applied to become one of the first Behavioral Neuroscience majors soon after the program began in 2005.
He asked Grimm for advice on getting involved in research, and Grimm suggested Harkness stop by his lab to see for himself. Harkness soon worked with Grimm to explore the brain science behind sugar cravings, co-authoring a paper with Grimm and presenting research at several conferences.
Harkness also co-founded a student club, Neuroscience Research Driven Students, or NeRDS.
Now a doctoral student in neuroscience at Oregon Health Sciences University, Harkness returned to WWU this fall to present his research at the annual Pacific Northwest Chapters meeting of the Society for Neuroscience, held at Western for the first time this year.
Finlay was delighted that colleagues from both the Seattle and Vancouver/Victoria regions selected WWU as the place to gather.
“It’s one more indication Western is on the map as far as neuroscience goes,” she says. “I think people will be surprised at what we’ve become.”