LATROBE, PA – A summer-long research project led by associate professor of biology Dr. Michael Rhodes culminated with him and a group of students presenting a poster at the annual Society for Neuroscience meeting in Chicago, Illinois, in late October.
Utilizing a 2019 Anonymous Foundation Summer Faculty Research Grant, Rhodes led a team of eight students on the project entitled “Presentation and Loss of Environmental Enrichment Toys: Stress-Responsive Hormone Effects in Male and Female Laboratory Mice,” aimed at determining the influences of presenting and removing environmental enrichment toys on stress hormones and anxiety behaviors in male and female mice to model stress and mental health changes subsequent to a significant loss in humans.
“I am grateful that Dean (Dr. Stephen) Jodis’ office was able to make this stipend available,” said Rhodes, “as well as the funds necessary for supplies and student involvement in the project. Overall, I believe that my project was very productive and all of the students who participated had a rewarding experience.”
Rhodes’ research team included five Saint Vincent College students – senior bioinformatics major Grace Noel of Latrobe, junior biology major Gabriella Petruccelli of Greensburg, junior biology major Sydney Ball of Pittsford, New York, junior biology major Emily Rohm of Lemont Furnace and junior integrated science major Courtney Maslanka of Bethel Park – as well as Johns Hopkins University senior Mikayla Bisignani and Hempfield Area High School students Mei Jenkins and Katelyn Johnson. The students were involved in all aspects of the project, including preparation, animal work, behavioral studies, sample collecting, immunoassay work and analyses.
“While I have helped Dr. Rhodes before with interpreting and analyzing data already collected,” Noel said, “I had never fully participated in the data collection and benchwork for a research project before. I also had never worked with mice, so I jumped on the chance to get these experiences. With our group consisting of undergraduate and high school students, it was a fun mix of different levels of experience and personalities. We soon became comfortable with each other and were able to be very efficient with our work.”
Rohm’s involvement in the project stemmed from a meeting with Rhodes in which she inquired about a neuroscience class he would be teaching in the spring. During the encounter, Rhodes offered her the opportunity to take part in the project as well as a chance to help him prepare research for the Chicago conference.
Rhodes explained that stress can precipitate depression in humans and different stress paradigms are often used to model anxiety and depression in rats and mice, with the majority of these paradigms employing unfavorable physiological and psychological challenges.
“While these stimuli may translate to unpleasant or traumatic experiences in humans,” he said, “they do not account for the impact of loss. Across the human lifespan, some of the highest incidents of stress occur during and after times associated with loss, such as death of a spouse, divorce, miscarriage, incarceration and death of a family member. To date, very few animal studies have assessed the potential impact of loss using an animal model, and other than from our laboratory, none have considered sex differences. Therefore, our study aimed to model significant loss in male and female mice using standard physiological and behavioral measures that assess stress, hormones, anxiety and depression.”
Stress in laboratory animals, Rhodes noted, is often intensified by living conditions that are unfavorable to the animal’s adaptive state, causing the brain to stimulate hormone release from the endocrine system that manages the body’s response to stress. Stress can be reduced by adding devices to the animal’s environment that promote its normal, instinctive tendencies.
“Environmental enrichment (EE) involves using objects to improve the quality of life of the caged animal,” Rhodes said, “thus distracting it from an otherwise monotonous environment. Commonly used EE items include objects that promote nesting, sleeping, gnawing and social behaviors in rodents. Therefore, stress reduction can be achieved by enriching an animal’s environment with these objects, enhancing the animal’s homeostatic physiology.”
He stated that while at Allegheny General Hospital in Pittsburgh, his laboratory was the first to demonstrate that animals housed with EE had lower baseline stress hormones and diminished responses to a mild stressor compared to animals housed in standard conditions.
While preliminary results have indicated that animals housed with EE had similar to lower anxiety measures compared to control animals and anxiety decreased as the exposure time to EE increased, Rhodes and his team noticed a surprising disparity between the results of the male and female mice.
“Although preliminary,” he said, “our results all point to the intriguing finding that housing mice with EE may lower stress and anxiety in males while increasing stress and anxiety in females. Conversely, removal of EE may lower stress and anxiety in females while increasing it in males.” Rhodes noted that data will continue to be analyzed for the next 6-9 months.
The project marked the first time that many of the students had worked with mice in a laboratory setting and Rohm said that this was one of her favorite experiences from the project.
“The mice were a wily bunch,” she said. “There were many escape attempts – some more successful than others – but they were so cute.”
From Oct. 19-22, Rhodes, along with Noel and Rohm, presented a poster detailing their study at the annual Society for Neuroscience meeting in Chicago, attended by approximately 28,000 scientists, physicians and students from more than 60 countries. Bailey Scheider, C’19, also assisted in the production of the poster, but was unable to travel.
“Ordinarily,” Rhodes said, “we receive 15-20 visitors to our posters at a conference and that is considered ‘well-received.’ This fall, Grace, Emily and I hosted somewhere between 50-60 visitors. It was amazing.”
Noel was thrilled to see the amount of interest generated by their project among conference attendees.
“Emily and I were a little nervous, as we didn’t know what kind of reception that we’d get,” she recounted, “but everyone was so interested in hearing what we had to say and asked us very insightful questions. It was certainly fulfilling to discuss our research with so many different neuroscientists in the field, though it was especially fulfilling when Dr. Rhodes told us they were basically ‘rock stars’ in the field and had published more than 70 research articles themselves.”
Rohm agreed with Noel, calling the trip a “wonderful learning experience.”
“We got to meet many scientists and students from all over the world who had so many things to teach us,” she recalled. “We received a lot of praise for our research, but we also got a lot of tips and pointers, including how we could have improved the research methods and suggestions for future projects.”
Rhodes felt that the summer project and subsequent presentation in Chicago were both great successes but stressed that the research isn’t finished.
“Moving forward,” he said, “the ultimate goal of this study is the continued pursuit of extramural funding for future research that would involve SVC undergraduates and undergraduates from other institutions. In the short term, we hope that results from this project will be presented at an upcoming Society for Neuroscience meeting, presumably in 2020 or 2021, because studies addressing the influence of EE toys and their removal could serve to model underlying factors potentially contributing to anxiety and depression in humans.
“A longer-term goal will be to supervise the students who worked on the project in preparing the results of this study for publication in a peer-reviewed scientific journal. Given the interesting results we have uncovered, I predict publication will be a successful endeavor.”
PHOTO 1 (From left to right): Mikayla Bisignani, Dr. Michael Rhodes, Sydney Ball, Courtney Maslanka, Mei Jenkins, Gabriella Petruccelli, Grace Noel and Katelyn Johnson.
PHOTO 2: Emily Rohm (left), Grace Noel and Dr. Michael Rhodes with their poster at the Society for Neuroscience meeting in Chicago, Illinois, on Oct. 19.
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