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Neuroscience alumni and professor publish research on animal anxiety

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Ashlyn Brown ’17 and Christen Snyder ’19

Ashlyn Brown ’17 and Christen Snyder ’19

Westminster College alumnae Ashlyn Brown ’17 and Christen Snyder ’19 saw their hard work acknowledged when the neuroscience research they performed as undergraduates was recently published in the peer-reviewed scientific journal Physiology and Behavior.

The results from both students’ projects showed similar findings and were able to be combined into one written, publishable project. The students wrote the paper “Similar Tests of Anxiety-Like Behavior Yield Different Results: Comparison of the Open Field and Free Exploratory Rodent Procedures” in its entirety, with guidance from Dr. Deanne Buffalari, associate professor of psychology and coordinator of Westminster’s neuroscience program.

Brown, a former neuroscience major and Honors student, evaluated how anxiety is studied in rodents, a common animal model used to investigate mental illness.  

Snyder, a past research scholar in Westminster’s neuroscience program, performed a complementary project in which she also examined whether the tests that are used when doing research with rodents might impact the results.

“To me, our research helps to expand the conversation around animal models of human pathologies. Anxiety for a human being is multi-faceted, dynamic, and dependent on a wide variety of societal factors. Replicating this exactly in animal models is not always easy, and so our research aimed to explore how we study individual parts of anxiety in animal models,” Brown said.

“This would then, hopefully, enhance the understanding of anxiety in the broader sense and enable greater collaboration between laboratory and clinical scientists. I also feel that our work helps to strengthen the understanding of the ways in which we treat anxiety in the clinical setting for everyday people,” she said.

Snyder said that while their research does not directly relate to human anxiety, it does relate to the process of how to study it.

“In this type of research, we need a multilevel approach that works from a fairly simple model, like mice or rats, and then moves to non-human primates before jumping to pre-clinical use,” Snyder said. “Our research found that two commonly used testing methods for anxiety-like behavior in rats did not give similar results suggesting that they were not both measuring the same thing. This study really highlights the importance of this multilevel system and continuous research as technology and medicine advances.”

Buffalari said while the main point of both studies was to examine the effects of different drugs on anxiety behavior, they discovered some interesting patterns in the rodent behavior in the absence of the drug.

“What scientists commonly refer to as ‘anxiety behavior’ in rodents isn’t always consistent among animals,” Buffalari said. “That’s important because if we are uniformly assuming all of these behaviors are related to the general anxiety concept, but they aren't, we need to think much more carefully about how we interpret our results and potentially apply those results to human conditions.”

Brown, who attended Drexel University College of Medicine following Westminster, said conducting this level of research as an undergraduate student was her first opportunity to explore her combined interests of medicine and research.

“As I plan to enter the realm of family medicine in June, I anticipate working with many patients who have mental health concerns. This research gave me a chance to focus in on the laboratory science aspects of disorders like anxiety, and I truly believe this will only enhance my ability to provide better care to my patients with psychiatric concerns,” she said.

Snyder said her research opportunities at Westminster propelled her onto her current path as a research technician at Carnegie Mellon University. She plans to pursue a Ph.D. in neuroscience.

“Prior to my thesis, I vaguely thought that I was interested in pursuing a Ph.D., but I had very limited research experience so I could not be certain that that was a path I could stay on for the rest of my life,” Snyder said. “Once I dove headfirst into this undergraduate project, I absolutely loved it even more than I thought I would.”

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