A Conversation with Associate Professor of Neuroscience Tracie Paine
Since 2009, students in Paine’s lab have been conducting research on mental health conditions.
You are a behavioral neuroscientist. For nonscientists, what does this mean, and what is your current research focus?
Basically, as a behavioral neuroscientist I study the biological basis of behavior using rodents as a model system. Our research is aimed at understanding how the GABA (gamma-aminobutyric acid) neurotransmitter system regulates social behaviors and attention. To do this we use drugs that affect specific aspects of the GABA system and then measure the effects on behavior in rodents.
What inspired you to pursue the field of neuroscience?
Starting in high school I became very interested in mental health and mental illness. In particular, I was curious about why some individuals developed mental health conditions and others didn’t. As an undergraduate I discovered that I enjoyed doing research and was much more suited for it as compared to working with patients in the clinic. Once I started doing research as an undergraduate, I found that I was keenly interested in how the brain was regulating behavior. I went into a graduate program that allowed me to study behavioral neuroscience.
In 2013, President Obama funded the BRAIN initiative, which is intended to do for neuroscience what the Human Genome Project did for genomics, to revolutionize our understanding of the brain. Why is there so much yet to be discovered about how the brain works?
The brain is immensely complicated—there are estimated to be 100 billion neurons (one type of brain cell). Each neuron is receiving information from many other neurons, which in turn sends information to other neurons. The “wiring” of the brain is so complex. Further, we are still using relatively crude tools to study brain function. These tools have given us a lot of insights into brain function. That said, we still have a lot to understand about how the brain works.
What are some exciting trends and developments in the field?
There are some pretty exciting new technologies, for example chemogenetics and optogenetics, that are allowing neuroscientists to more carefully parse out the roles of different types of neurons in specific behaviors.
What kinds of research experiences have students had in your lab?
Students in my lab conduct behavioral pharmacology experiments with rodents. In addition, students will learn to stain and analyze brain tissue or conduct other molecular analyses on brain tissue.
Which courses do you especially enjoy teaching?
That’s a tricky question because I like teaching all of my courses for different reasons. I like to teach lab-based courses the most because you get to work closely with students, and it is a very hands-on type of learning. Because of the structure of the labs, there is also time to get to know the students as individuals in a way that is difficult in lecture classes.