Dr. Peter Cain
Social Science Centre 9232
519-661-2111 ext. 84628
My work at Western has had two main phases, both focussed on mechanisms of neural plasticity and behaviour. The first phase involved kindling research, which gradually progressed to the study of a lab model of neural plasticity known as Long Term Potentiation (LTP) as a possible underlying mechanism of kindling. Since LTP was being actively studied as a possible neural mechanism of learning by many researchers, I gradually returned to my original interest of studying the neural mechanisms of learning, with emphasis on the study of LTP in intact, behaving animals. This describes the core of the second phase of my research career. We are continuing to do research on the neural basis of learning and memory in my laboratory. In addition we are developing animal models of a variety of human neurological disorders including Alzheimers disease, schizophrenia, and autism.
I have learned a number of important lessons during this phase, which guide the research I do:
1) Many people are studying brain slices, cells, and molecules. Since natural selection
actually selects behaviour, not cells or molecules, it is important and useful to study
neural mechanisms of learning in intact, behaving animals.
2) If you are going to study neural mechanisms of learning in behaving animals, it is no good to use the latest complex techniques involving slices, cells, or molecules, and then use a simplistic measure of "learning" like search time in the water maze. Behaviour must be studied in detail, so that the information from behaviour is as rich and detailed as the information on the neural mechanisms. Otherwise the risk of making erroneous inferences about whether learning has been blocked by some treatment, for example, are too high.
3) Properly used, the water maze may be the best laboratory task to use to study the brain mechanisms of learning in small mammals. This necessarily involves employing a detailed behavioural analysis, as discussed above. Use of the water maze in this way has reminded us of the important insight from Krechevsky, Whishaw, and others that acquiring appropriate general behavioural strategies for a task must preceed acquisition of the specific crucial (spatial) information necessary for solving the task, and has allowed these two forms of learning to be studied separately. Using this approach has revealed that many experimental treatments severely impair naive rats in acquiring the necessary general behavioural strategies but do not affect spatial learning at all in rats that already know the behavioural strategies.
4) Two principles of good scientific thinking should always be kept in mind:
SCEPTICISM about results and especially interpretations of those results (including
one's own), and PARSIMONY, keeping in mind that the simplest explanation is always
the best one, at least until a better, more encompassing explanation comes along.
5) We are largely supported by public money. Therefore it is important to apply good
behavioural neuroscience research techniques to neurological problems in the population. This illuminates both the disorders and basic brain-behaviour mechanisms. One way to accomplish this is to develop good animals models of Alzheimers disease, schizophrenia, Autism and other common disorders.
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