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Rat Lab

May 3, 2010   Of all the requirements for a neuro major at Hamilton (there are a lot), I think the stuff we do in Neural Plasticity best represents what people think of when they hear the word "neuroscience" (other than thinking, what's neuroscience?)  I finally got to take Plasticity this semester, and even though I'm more interested in the cognitive aspects of neuroscience, the class has been an absolute blast.  I'm usually terrible at labwork, but the lab portion of the course has actually been the most exciting and fulfilling part for me.  Throughout the semester we've examined anatomy of a sheep's brain, measured membrane potentials in a crayfish, and recorded action potentials in a cockroach.  But the heart of the lab component was the rat lab, in which we conducted a simple experiment on the mechanisms of reward in rats.

To start the lab, groups of two did surgery on a rat in order to implant an electrode into its brain. It was a little nerve racking to perform surgery on an animal, but Professor Weldon was always there to monitor our every move and make sure things were going okay.  The great thing about a lab course like this is that, not only do we get the opportunity to work with fancy equipment and high-tech methods, but everyone gets a lot of individual attention so that we can really learn how to do the procedures correctly. We also spent time learning about the ethical dilemmas surrounding animal research like this, and learned how to properly treat the rats during all parts of the process.

A week after the surgery, we ran an experiment with the rats.  For those familiar with psychology, it was a type of operant conditioning task, a la famed psychologist and Hamilton grad B.F Skinner (if you're a neuro major, you hear about either Skinner or Hamilton grad and Nobel Laureate Paul Greengard every day).  Basically, the rats were trained to press a bar that triggered stimulation of a part of the brain that codes for reward (ie, rats learn to press the bar because it makes them feel good inside).  I was ecstatic when Little Buddy (my rat...we're not supposed to name them, but oh well) started pressing the bar like it was his job--that meant that I probably put the electrode in a good spot in the brain.

The rest of the lab, done over the course of a few weeks, consisted of taking out the brain (RIP Little Buddy), slicing brain sections, staining sections to see the different parts of the brain, and looking at where the electrode from the surgery ended up.  It was such a great experience--and whether I end up doing research like this down the road or never see another rat in my life, I'm glad to have gotten this unique opportunity in an undergraduate lab course.