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Research Team

Shaefali Rodgers, Ph.D., Research Assistant Professor

Shaefali Rodgers

I use rodent models to study the mechanisms of brain plasticity, with particular emphasis on how plasticity can be augmented or disrupted during critical periods in the mammalian lifespan viz. aging and adolescence, so as to guide and develop targeted therapeutic interventions. As a behavioral neuroscientist, I investigate both behavior and its underlying neurobiological mechanisms. My current research interests include characterizing the brain region-specific effects of exercise during the aforementioned critical periods, in males and females, with the objective of maximizing its potential as a non-pharmacological adjuvant strategy to improve cognitive function.

Emily Barton, M.A., Graduate Research Assistant

Emily Barton

Glia are not only support cells for the brain, but are involved in just about every aspect of neural functioning. The in-depth study of glial biology and function is an emerging field that has promising implications for furthering our understanding of neurological diseases and dysfunctions. I am currently investigating the interactive effects of alcohol consumption and exercise on microglia priming and morphology in the frontal cortex and hippocampus. Additionally, to examine the functional ramifications of the combination of alcohol and exercise and the observed changes in microglia I am assessing alterations in the behavior and pattern of neural activation in both regions following Morris water maze. I plan to continue my research in this field by assessing the glial and vascular responses to other models of neural injuries and disease states, such as TBI and seizure disorders.

Jessica Wooden, M.A., Graduate Research Assistant

Jessica Wooden

My general research interests lie in exploring the reciprocal relationship between the environment and the brain. I am particularly interested in experiences that shape learning and memory, motivation and reward, and the generation or degeneration of hippocampal neurons. My current research project focuses on identifying phenotypes related to alcohol use disorders (AUDs). For this, I am using a mouse model that is genetically altered to produce less Munc 13.1, a pre-synaptic protein necessary for glutamate release at the synapse. I am assessing changes in learning, memory, and motor coordination, as well as self-administration behavior and acute ethanol tolerance. Additionally, I am using immunohistochemistry and stereology techniques to look for changes in hippocampal neurogenesis following chronic alcohol exposure, in both heterozygous and wildtype mice.

Laian Najjar, M.A., M.Sc., Graduate Research Assistant

Laian Najjar

My research interests include understanding the relationship between physical activity and alcohol consumption, specifically why this association appears to be positive for some people. This is important because exercise, a health behavior, is often touted as an adjunct treatment to alcohol use disorders; thus, examining factors that may moderate the exercise-drinking relation would further inform prevention and intervention strategies for problematic drinking. Impulsivity and religiosity are two factors that I am currently looking to examine. How would they interact to influence the exercise-drinking relation? I am particularly interested in young adult populations, namely college students, because they may be more vulnerable to alcohol-related problems and future maladaptive drinking given typical college exposure to alcohol and athletics

Emma Perez, M.A., Graduate Research Assistant

Emma Perez

In a broad sense, I am interested in how developmental experiences shape brain and behavior. Currently, I am investigating the effects of cranial or whole-brain radiation in an animal model of pediatric radiotherapy due to the use of radiation therapy and its associated harmful effects on cognition in childhood cancers. My current research is focused on developing an animal model of radiation-induced behavioral impairment(s) because reliable behavioral impairment is necessary for testing of potential drug therapies. I am also currently using a rodent model of cranial radiation to investigate neural effects, using magnetic resonance imaging and histological techniques.

Rebecca West, M.A., Graduate Research Assistant

Rebecca West

My research interests concern methods of prevention and recovery of neurodegeneration, brain injury and central nervous system disorders. Currently I am researching the cellular and behavioral impacts of binge alcohol consumption and exercise-induced plasticity on the brain, specifically in the prefrontal cortex and hippocampus. I am also developing a clinically relevant rodent model of binge alcohol damage that reflects human typical drinking patterns. I am also examining sex-differences as they relate to binge alcohol. There is evidence that women manifest more severe brain damage from heavy alcohol intake, even though they typically drink less and begin drinking later in life. I am examining this telescoping effect with my current rodent model and am also assessing the behavioral and cognitive deficits that accompany alcohol-induced cellular damage.

Kyle Schuller, Undergraduate Research Assistant

Kyle Schuller

My research interests are related to the systems of plasticity involved in memory formation, largely non-Hebbian methods of glutamatergic synapse adjustment. This non-Hebbian plasticity, referred to as homeostatic synaptic plasticity (or synaptic scaling) is still not entirely understood but is functionally distinct from LTP and has more salient changes to the synapse. My research involves examining changes in the expression of different subtypes of AMPA receptors in various brain regions in a genetically altered strain of mouse that releases less glutamate, due to decreased expression of a presynaptic protein called Munc 13-1.

Cassandra Baker, Undergraduate Research Assistant

Cassandra Baker

The exchange between brain and environment drives plasticity in the brain. However, plasticity does not always translate into a positive outcome. My current research interests are focused on neural immune response to stimuli of both a degenerative (acute alcohol exposure) and a regenerative nature (exercise), and their interactive effects. As neural immune response is highly regulated by glial cell biology, my interest focuses on investigating the morphological response of glial cells in a highly plastic region of the brain, the hippocampus. I currently assist Emily Barton with her work in microglia priming and morphology following binge alcohol and/or exercise. Additionally, I support her investigation into the effects of binge alcohol and exercise on activation of hippocampal neurons following spatial learning in the Morris water maze. I intend to continue down the path of neuroimmunology, branching out to study neurodegenerative diseases such as multiple sclerosis and Alzheimer’s disease.

Lab Alumni

Darby Hawley, Ph.D. 2012

Mark Maynard, Ph.D. 2016 post-doctoral fellow, UTHSC Department of Neurobiology & Anatomy