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Neuroscience Student Gets a Whiff of High-Level Research

Story posted July 28, 2005

Just a couple of summers ago, Jena Davis '06 was a camp counselor.

Jena Davis in lab
Jena Davis '06 is performing all the tasks of neurophysiological research in Seth Ramus' lab -- including hand-building electrodes, performing microsurgery, animal training and testing, and data analysis.

This year, the soft-spoken neuroscience major started her summer by learning how to microsurgically implant electrodes into rat brains. And that was just the start.

After performing the surgeries, Jena will train her rodent research subjects to recognize and remember a specific sequence of odors - which are piped into their experimental cage.

Tiny cellular signals recorded from the electrodes will allow Jena to explore changes in neuronal firing while the rats learn about odors. In other words, Jena is watching the actual firing of individual cells in a rat's brain as it recognizes and even anticipates odors - both of which are functions of memory. Using a highly sophisticated recording system that amplifies neuronal signals over 40,000 times, she will begin to plot which part of the brain processes and stores these odor memories.

"I find it fascinating," she says, making the rounds of the rat cages. "These two guys especially are just shaping up. It is cool when they start doing this task consistently and learning it. I'm looking forward to watching the cells fire."

Jena was hand picked by Assistant Professor Seth Ramus to assist in his long-range study of how memory is stored in the brain. Their work this summer is supported by a highly prestigious award from the SOMAS program (Support of Mentors and their Students in the Neurosciences). This award, which was one of only six given out nationwide, is supported by The National Science Foundation and Davidson College.

Ultimately, these findings may have bearing on current research on memory disorders, such as Alzheimer's Disease.

Previously, researchers believed that all memory was stored in the hippocampus, which is located in the temporal lobes of the brain. Ramus and his students are gathering data to support a new theory that suggests that the hippocampus only helps other parts of the brain to store memory. Their research - of which Jena's work plays an important part - indicates that sensory information is received throughout the brain, entering through the separate cortices (visual, auditory, olfactory), then passes into the hippocampus, which binds the information together into a single episodic memory. If results of their early data prove out, those memories may then return to the cortex, where they finally are stored.

Ultimately, these findings may have bearing on current research on memory disorders, such as Alzheimer's Disease.

Jena had always planned to go to medical school, and says her experiences in the lab and surgery this summer have confirmed her interest in medicine and steered her more closely toward research. The process, she says, is intense:

"I was interested in neuroscience, but I didn't really think I wanted to go into a field that had to do with the brain," she says. "But I love this. I had a lab class in the fall and then I took care of the rats all year as my job. I started building the electrodes in the electronics room and watched Seth do the first surgery. After that, he talked me through it and I did my first surgery. It took eight hours -- that's a long time. But it's kinda neat. "

"She is incredibly bright and will come out with the skills that a second-year graduate student would have."

Ramus says Jena's neurophysiological research experiences this summer - which she plans to continue as an Honors Project in the fall - will put her in a league all her own when she graduates.

"She is incredibly bright and will come out with the skills that a second-year graduate student would have," says Ramus. "Perhaps more importantly, she has done real research and knows how frustrating and boring it can be at times, punctuated by exciting stretches when you are getting real data. She understands how research progresses, how publication works, and even if she chooses not to go into neurophysiology, she will be a top candidate for graduate schools."

Two of Ramus' previous student researchers will be presenting the results of their undergraduate research at the annual Society for Neuroscience meeting in Washington, D.C. in November 2005 - a rarity at a major professional conference.

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