An Introduction to Behavioral Neuroscience

Members of the Behavioral Neuroscience Program focus their research and teaching on the neurobiological basis of behavior. Researchers in this area are interested in the way that neurocircuits are modulated by factors such as hormones, stress, addiction, and sex differences. They investigate how these factors contribute to behavior. This program is devoted almost exclusively to the study of non-human animals. There are many different approaches to research in this area that are possible only in these non-human models. In the lab of Luke Remage-Healey, Associate Professor and Behavioral Neuroscience Program Head, students study neurocircuits of songbirds.  They record the activity of neurons within thin sections of animal brain. Remage-Healey explains, "We try to figure out how neurocircuits are dynamically wired. Our program is really interested in how the brain is functionally connected, a diagram that is constantly changing. Synaptic connections are formed based on current events, and sometimes pruned away. We are working on how neurochemicals and various behavioral states interact to mediate that process."

Researchers in Behavioral Neuroscience also study how the brain makes its own supply of hormones, including estrogens. They are trying to figure out why this occurs. Estrogens are made in the female ovaries, so why should the brains of both males and females make their own supply? The lab is examining what estrogens are doing in the brain and how fast they are made. "We presume that hormone production in the brain has something to do with behavior. We have some insights into that, and now we are starting to realize that when we turn off the ability of the brain to synthesize estrogens, animals show that their sensory and cognitive functions are impaired," says Remage-Healey. 

Some of the results of their work may have bearing on mental health disorders. Individuals diagnosed with reproductive cancers often take estrogen synthesis inhibitors. The aim of these drugs is to shut off the source of estrogens, which can act as potent carcinogens in the body. Recent research findings report that these inhibitors can also affect brain function and behavior, sometimes causing the patient to stop taking the medication.

Behavioral Neuroscience researchers are asking the questions, "Can we figure out what is happening in the brain in order for estrogen synthesis to circumvent these side effects? Are there other classes of drugs that will be able to encourage estrogen synthesis in the brain specifically and not in the body?" This research is part of a much longer time window than the immediate future. The hope is that some findings will pertain to health outcomes in the future.

The study of neuroendocrinology, the relationship between hormones and the brain, has traditionally been a strong point of UMass Amherst. The Center for Neuroendocrine Studies consists of the research groups of faculty members who share an interest in understanding the relationships among hormones, the brain, physiology, and behavior. The Center fosters neuroendocrine research by sponsoring scientific meetings, facilitating collaboration and information transfer among laboratories, and coordinating efforts to obtain funding for training, equipment, and research. The Center also holds a bi-weekly “Hormones for Breakfast” seminar series, discussing ongoing or planned research, a new technique or relevant paper.

All graduate training by faculty members in Behavioral Neuroscience is carried out through one of the interdepartmental graduate programs at UMass, primarily the Neuroscience and Behavior (NSB) Program. In addition, faculty train students in the Molecular and Cellular Biology (MCB) and the Organismic and Evolutionary Biology (OEB) Programs. As a student, if you’re looking for Behavioral Neuroscience collaborations, these graduate students work in many PBS labs. 

Labs are housed in several buildings across campus including Tobin Hall, Life Sciences Laboratories, Central, and Morrill. Several projects happening in the labs have portions that are performed by an undergraduate student.  ”Their objective is to learn about different techniques but also to push the project forward and learn how research is actually done. They are really an engine for the research we do in the labs. I got started in research as an undergrad myself. It’s a great way to see how science really works," Remage-Healey notes.

One important lesson Remage-Healey has learned is to not get overly focused on failure when your hypothesis turns out to be wrong. Part of scientific research involves coming up with ideas about how nature works, testing these ideas, and accepting the result. Undergraduate researchers often come up with interesting insights, having joined labs with little previous experience. With their help, labs are able to try out new directions that might lead to new discoveries.

New technologies within the field of neuroscience are being developed very quickly. Remage-Healey explains, "There are some things that weren’t possible until recently that we are now exploring. Approaches like the ability to control neural circuits with light open up brand-new directions for our system. This gives us the ability to ask questions we have never asked before. "

A recent development in the Behavioral Neuroscience Program involves the formation of a larger Institute for Neuroscience which will include a broader scope of disciplines, involving computer science/engineering and other approaches to understand the brain. It will serve a wide variety of departments on campus, including PBS.

This year, program members are excited to welcome Marcela Fernandez-Peters as a new Visiting Assistant Professor, performing a new type of position that includes teaching lecture-style classes each semester and engaging in lab research. Also, Assistant Professor Mariana Pereira has moved her lab into Tobin Hall, bringing her closer to many other PBS labs. This is opening the door to more interactions between students and faculty in the program.