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Behavioral Neuroscience Lab - Dr. J. Leigh Leasure

neurons-glia.jpgAbout the lab

Brain on Exercise

Our research is on neuroplasticity, which is the capacity of the brain to change itself. Far from being static, the brain is exquisitely capable of responding to even the subtlest changes in behavior or the environment. The brain-changing behavior that we focus on is exercise. Simply put, exercise is good for the brain because it causes the brain to change itself in ways that support optimal cognitive, emotional and physical function. We use rodent models of exercise to study its effects on neurons and supporting glial cells in the hippocampus and prefrontal cortex. Both of these brain regions are important for behavioral control, emotion and memory. Because it benefits neurons and glia, exercise is a great way to protect the brain from injury and disease, as well as a way to help it recover, so a major focus of the lab is investigating the capacity of exercise to help the brain heal itself.

Our current projects include:

Interactive Effects of Alcohol and Exercise on the Brain

Binge alcohol damages the brain. In contrast, exercise promotes brain health and plasticity. We have shown that exercise can protect the brain from subsequent alcohol damage, as well as help heal it afterwards. However, our work also shows that alcohol damage influences the extent to which subsequent exercise can induce neuroplasticity. These data have significant implications for the development of prevention and treatment programs for alcohol use disorders. Moreover, multiple studies indicate that physically active people also drink alcohol. In collaboration with Dr. Clayton Neighbors at the University of Houston and Dr. Craig Henderson at Sam Houston State University, we are investigating the reasons behind this surprising relationship, focusing on joint motives underlying exercise and alcohol intake.

Developmental Exercise Amelioration of Cognitive Late Effects of Radiotherapy

Radiotherapy is an effective treatment for brain cancer. However, when applied to cancers in the developing brain, radiotherapy has the unwanted side effect of stunting brain growth and causing cognitive impairments and decreased quality of life. Using a rodent model of pediatric radiotherapy, we are working in collaboration with Dr. M Waleed Gaber at Texas Children’s Hospital, investigating the capacity of exercise to rebuild the brain and ameliorate cognitive impairments.

Effect of Reduced Glutamate Transmission on Alcohol Intoxication and Intake

Among the many pharmacological effects of alcohol is its suppressive effect on glutamate transmission. The presynaptic protein Munc 13-1, which is involved in glutamate signaling, may therefore be a potential therapeutic target to treat alcohol use disorder. In collaboration with Dr. Joydip Das at the University of Houston and Dr. Gregg Roman at the University of Mississippi we are quantifying alcohol consumption and intoxication behaviors in a strain of mouse with decreased expression of Munc 13-1. In addition, we are quantifying hippocampal neurogenesis and expression of glutamate receptors in these mice, before and after alcohol exposure.


J. Leigh Leasure, PI

Research Team