In the last couple of years, Dr. Gareth Harris and his neuroscience research students have continued to work on a number of exciting projects, that aim to understand how humans through to simple animals sense their environment, and how studying the mechanisms that control these behaviors, can help us to understand human brain disease. Two recent projects, led initially by Brianna Ramos (Now Neuroscience PhD student at the University of Michigan Medical School) and Duncan Tanner (recent graduate from CSUCI) used the small worm, C. elegans to ask fundamental questions about the brain.

Brianna along with Bryant Cruz, Alec de long and Gianina Pontrelli, in our lab showed that worms sense the well-known odors originating from cat sensed ‘catnip’. Our students have been using this as a model to understand how mammals sense odors, and have now identified genes and brain signals that do this. Students in the Harris lab have shown that worms are strongly attracted to catnip, just like select mammals(many cats). Our catnip attraction project was recently published in a peer review journal, and led to a number of expanded projects in the Harris lab (‘Worms like catnip too! Identification of a new odor attractant in C. elegans’). This project also received a best presentation award at last year’s West Coast Student Undergraduate Research Conference in San Diego. Students, Amber Seader, Gianina Pontrelli and Emily Chang are continuing to find exciting things for this project.

In the Harris lab, Duncan Tanner, in collaboration with past CSUCI alumni, Chane Sevilla, Denise Carigo and Madison Lewis have examined sex differences in behavior using worms. They identified that worms of different sex perform decision-making behaviors distinctly when encountering different environmental cues(odors and food). This was based on showing that worm behavior towards attractive and repulsive odors differs across sex(in a behavior known as a ‘multisensory behavior’). This work has provided exciting spin off projects and led to a recent publication (‘Sex differences in decision-making: Identifying multisensory behavioral differences in males and hermaphrodites’).

Research undergraduate students in the lab continue to investigate these stories along with additional projects, that use worms as a model for understanding current and novel brain targeting therapies, in order to further our understanding of the action of compounds used to treat mood disorders, addiction and Parkinson’s disease. Current students, Delyar Khosroabadi, Lendin Stell Santiago, Kris Korpontinos, Jamie Ferns, and previous students, Leighton Ledesma and Alyssa Garbarino have together investigated how organisms that differ as species, vary in their response to brain signals, like, serotonin. Overall, showing how variation across organisms may produce different behaviors to human brain targeting drugs.

Finally, our most recent project investigates how worms that have reduced ability to move are still capable of escaping danger. This project lead by Annabelle Tran studies how the worm is able to escape repulsive poisons, despite lacking coordinated movement. We hope these findings will provide insight into mechanisms that could be useful for understanding sensory and motor nerve related disorders.

A number of these projects have been presented by our students at the Southern California Conference for Undergraduate Research(SCCUR), National Congress of Undergraduate Research(NCUR), Society for Advancement of Chicanos/Hispanics and native Americans in Science(SACNAS), CSU Statewide competition, and were recently selected to be presented at the World Congress on Undergraduate Research(WCUR) in the UK. More to come!!!

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