Published October 15, 2021 by Tom Porter

How the Study of Animal Brains Could Help Reveal the Neural Basis of Trauma

Jennifer Honeycutt is excited at what the next three years could bring. Earlier this year the assistant professor of psychology and neuroscience, now in her second year at Bowdoin, received $270,000 in funding for a research project that could have big implications for the treatment of anxiety and trauma.

rar brain slices
Anatomically organized rat brain sections ready to be put onto microscope slides for analysis

The project—formally titled “Identification of neural and epigenetic biomarkers for affective dysfunction following early adversity”—involves investigating changes in the brains of rats that have experienced caregiver deprivation. The funding, to be distributed over three years, is a subaward, part of a multimillion dollar initiative organized by the Maine INBRE* program. Led by MDI Biological Laboratory in Bar Harbor, the program works to build infrastructure and training opportunities across the state in the field of biomedical sciences.

Honeycutt’s project aims to identify neurological responses to early life trauma and how this affects brain development. “We’re particularly interested in looking at a caregiver deprivation model and comparing different male and female responses as they relate to later anxiety-like behaviors,” said Honeycutt. “In the human world this is what we see in places like underfunded orphanages, refugee camps, and detention centers at the US-Mexico border, where young children are separated from their parents.”

Using laboratory rats, a similar trauma is induced by separating some of them from their mother and litter mates for a period of time each day after they are born, explained Honeycutt. “Following this procedure, the rats—now young adults—are presented with stimuli designed to induce anxiety, for example the ultrasonic alarm calls emitted by the animals to warn of a possible predator,” she said. 

jenn honeycutt w students
Honeycutt (3rd from right) with student researchers (L-R): Seneca Ellis ’23, Sydney Bonauto ’23, Emma Noel ’23, Erin McCue (SMCC), Alissa Chen ’22

After analyzing behavior, brain samples are collected and examined by Honeycutt and her colleagues. Through molecular and cellular analysis of these tissue samples, differing levels of anxiety in the rats can be measured. “We compare the brains of the rats who were subjected to early life trauma with the brains of those who were not. This provides a really useful insight into brain changes that may drive behavioral alterations related to anxiety and depression in adulthood,” added Honeycutt.

Rats’ brains work in surprisingly similar ways to human ones, she explained, giving cause for real optimism that this research could one day bear fruit in helping to treat children who have suffered trauma early in their life. “These experiments are really helpful because there’s obviously no way to carry out this sort of investigation on humans,” said Honeycutt.

“We can really only follow people by asking them questions, whereas with the animal model, we can systematically examine their experiences by studying underlying changes in brain function alongside behavioral changes as the animals reach important developmental milestones. We hope to use this knowledge to help those who might be at risk based on the experiences they have had, and identify opportunities for intervention and treatment.”

Working alongside Honeycutt in her lab throughout the summer were four Bowdoin students—all of whom had received fellowships from the College—and one student from Southern Maine Community College, who earned a fellowship from INBRE. She now has eleven students on her team. They have already achieved notable successes. At the Northeast Regional IDeA Conference in August, which was virtual but hosted by the University of Rhode Island, all three of her presenting Bowdoin students walked away with awards: Emma Noel ’23 won first prize for her translational work, Sydney Bonauto ’23 came in second, and Seneca Ellis ’22 earned an honorable mention within the undergraduate talk category. Ellis is also to have her review paper published in an upcoming edition of the journal Frontiers in Behavioral Neuroscience.

FUN FACT

As an undergraduate at Colby College, Honeycutt was originally a psychology and fine arts major, specializing in sculpture, before falling in love with behavioral neuroscience.

“I enjoyed art. I even studied it abroad for a while and still do metalsmithing when I can, but I really loved the challenge of analyzing and interpreting neuroscience data, so I swapped majors in my junior year.”

The subaward will enable Honeycutt to offer support to students by offering them paid summer research positions. She is especially committed to helping those from underrepresented and nontraditional backgrounds. “As a first-generation college graduate and a queer woman, I am committed to supporting and creating space in my lab for voices that have historically been shut out of the sciences,” she said.