How do our bodies form the brain, its most complex organ? Developmental neuroscientists seek to answer this question by studying both the genetically-driven processes and the external, environmental forces that can intervene as well. Exploring how the environment can affect our brains through chemical, physical, and other stimuli opens new avenues for understanding, treating, and perhaps preventing several prominent neurological disorders. This past summer, I studied how exposure to the common antidepressant fluoxetine affects the brain during development. While children typically do not receive antidepressants, expecting mothers experiencing depression or having a history of depression are often prescribed such medication to resolve their symptoms and protect the fetus from the established harmful effects of stress. However, several case studies have shown that administration of fluoxetine is associated with the development of autism spectrum disorder (ASD) later on in the child’s life. Here, we seek to understand how fluoxetine exposure influences brain development at the neuron, circuit, and network levels. By using tadpoles, we can not only simulate a biological equivalent prenatal exposure, but also perform both behavioral and electrophysiology experiments to assess autism-like behaviors and individual neuron properties, network connectivity, and the population distribution of different types of neurons (excitatory, inhibitory, etc.).
Electrophysiology comprised most of my research and of my troubles! I performed whole-cell patch clamp recording, meaning that I recorded from the inside of a single neuron from the tadpole brain. This technique allowed me to study a wide variety of characteristics about the neuron, but was an extremely difficult method to learn. My first few weeks consisted primarily of learning the technique as well as troubleshooting my electrophysiology setup or “rig”. It took both creativity and persistence to return to the rig each day, ready to fix whatever problem occurs next and continually hope to acquire data. With the completion of this fellowship, I see research undoubtedly in a more realistic light. Rarely was it that experiments work perfectly. Good scientists are those who return to the lab bench with new ideas and an eagerness to learn and collaborate with others.
In fact, each day of my experience as a scientist this summer was marked by learning. Whether it was learning a new experimental technique or reading new journal publications or simply hearing about the more senior lab members’ tales in electrophysiology, I was always learning in the lab. Lab meetings were the highlight of the week, as we would all give updates on our individual projects that led to fascinating discussions for future directions. Above all else, this fellowship has imbedded the importance of collaborative learning within a diverse group of scientists. We all have our unique contributions to give, and I hope to continue expanding my own throughout my academic and scientific career.