By Jennifer Brouner
Two clear plastic shoebox-sized containers sit atop a table. Each container has a thin bottom layer of tan-colored bedding, a water bottle, a food dish, and a mouse no bigger than two fingers. The first clear container contains a black mouse, while the second container houses an albino mouse.
A hand reaches slowly into the first clear container and carefully wraps all five fingers around the tiny black mouse. The black mouse is gently lifted from the first plastic container, and placed into the second container, where the red eyes of the albino view it as an unwelcome intruder.
Here is where things get interesting. This second container, now holding the two mice, acts as center stage for Travis Goode’s undergraduate research project.
At the end of Travis Goode’s sophomore year, he wanted to become involved with psychology outside of the classroom setting. “I found out pretty quickly that at a large university like this, they don’t always hold your hand on getting you opportunities,” he says. “The opportunities are there, but you have to go out and seek them yourself. So that’s what I did.”
He wasted no time in contacting Dr. Matthew Cooper, Assistant Professor of Psychology at the University of Tennessee, who specializes in neuroscience research.
Goode joined Dr. Cooper’s lab in the summer of 2009 to study a social defeat model in Syrian hamsters, which focuses on the anxiety and stress hamsters experience after losing an aggressive interaction. Dr. Cooper integrates undergraduate students into the lab gradually. In the first few weeks of training, an undergraduate typically handles the animal subjects and assists graduate students with their thesis projects. After participating in the lab for a year, Goode was assigned to lead a project that asked the question: Does acute social defeat increase alcohol consumption in mice?
In the summer of 2010, Goode began research on his independent project. His research over the summer centered mainly on developing an acute social defeat paradigm that would successfully stress the mice. Goode then carried out the social defeat procedure, which consisted of pairing a mouse with an aggressor mouse for a time period of two minutes, videotaping the interactions, reviewing every two-minute tape, and scoring the behavioral interactions.
Therefore, Goode spent his summer instigating aggressive interactions between albino and black mice.
All animals are territorial by nature, but some animals, such as the albino mice, are more suited to establish dominance over others. This aggressive interaction establishes the pecking order of all societies, even human societies. These interactions occur unobserved every day between wild mice, but when observed in Dr. Cooper’s neuroscience lab, they are defined as social defeats.
Goode carefully observed each aggressive encounter, paying particular attention to how quickly aggressive behavior would erupt, how submissive the black mouse would become, the number of bites from each mouse, the length of time the mice interacted, and the tendency of the losing mouse to avoid these social encounters in the future.
Goode says that oftentimes the mice would engage in an aggressive game of tag—generally the albino mouse chased the black mouse around the container. On other occasions, the mice would charge one another, forming a tight little white and black ball that transformed the plastic container into a wrestling ring.
Each interaction was unique, but in almost all circumstances, the black mouse would admit defeat and freeze all movements. The dominating albino mouse would gloat by swishing its tail back and forth—a social sign of dominance in mice.
After the mice had interacted for two minutes, Goode would reach into the container and wrap his fingers around the black mouse, transporting him away to the safety of his own home.
Goode’s research over the summer suggests that social defeat increased the tendency of the defeated mouse to exhibit social avoidance, meaning that in the future the black mouse would flee from all other mice. This behavior signifies that the mouse has experienced a potent social stress.
Dr. Cooper and Goode laid the groundwork over the summer of 2010 for the study that will attempt to determine whether stress leads to increased alcohol consumption in mice. If future research on this project suggests a correlation between stress levels and the tendency of mice to consume alcohol, then pharmacological agents could be tested for whether they decrease the amount of alcohol consumed. Drugs that decrease defeat-induced alcohol consumption in mice could then be used to learn more about the brain regions that are involved in stress-related alcohol addiction—and this new information could perhaps lead to better treatments of alcoholism in humans.
When reflecting on his undergraduate research experience, Goode says that the lab has “opened my eyes up to how neuroscience research is done and helped me to decide that that was what I wanted to do.”
Dr. Cooper also comments on undergraduate research saying, “I participated in undergraduate research as a student, and it was the most significant part of my undergraduate education.” Dr. Cooper feels that by participating in undergraduate research, Goode has had a behind-the-scenes look at how research gets done and thus has increased his chances of getting into a graduate program for neuroscience.
Goode has had many opportunities that are often available only to graduate researchers. He was able to conduct research in neuroscience and form a relationship with a professor. He was also able to attend the Society of Neuroscience Conference in San Diego, California, where he saw 30,000 of the best neuroscience researchers in the world.
“There is a satisfaction in knowing I have contributed to science,” says Goode. Dr. Cooper concludes by saying, “Research is a very valuable part of an undergraduate education because it allows students the chance to get out of the classroom and become involved in the science directly.”