Dr. Bruce Cushing

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Department of Biological Sciences

Dr. Cushing’s research program is focused on understanding the neurobiology of social behavior in the prairie vole (Microtus ochrogaster), with a focus on how drugs of abuse affect the social brain. Prairie voles are a unique and powerful research model system because their social organization (social monogamy) is very similar to humans. Like most human societies males and females form long-term pair bonds and both parents provide care for the offspring. Therefore, results from studies with prairie voles may be translatable to understanding how abused drugs affect the brain thereby impacting social relationships.


Significance of the work

Substance use disorders (e.g., alcohol and methamphetamine abuse) are associated with the disruption of social networks, increased interpersonal conflict and intimate partner violence. However, the cause of social deficits in these disorders remains largely unknown. Most importantly, no effective drugs are currently available to treat these disorders and their associated social deficits, due in large part to the lack of appropriate preclinical models. Therefore, our strategy is to elucidate the neural mechanism(s) that contribute to alterations in social behavior following voluntary drug use in male and female prairie voles.

Research questions

Specifically our research will address the following questions:

  • How does drinking alcohol affect the formation and stability of pair bonds and the expression of parental care in male and female prairie voles?
  • How does alcohol drinking by the parents affect the subsequent social behavior of their offspring?
  • Are the effects of alcohol on social behavior associated with alterations in the expression of estrogen receptors and/or neuropeptides (e.g., oxytocin and vasopressin) in social behavior neural networks?
  • Does compulsive methamphetamine use disrupt prosocial behavior, and what are the underlying neural mechanisms?


Methods to be learned

A wide range of behavioral neuroscience techniques will be used to conduct these studies measuring behavioral changes as well as neuroanatomical. Behavioral techniques include social behavior (e.g., partner preference formation and alloparental care) and drug self-administration, while neuroanatomical include sectioning tissue, immunohistochemistry, immunofluorescence, and laser-capture micro-dissection. Student will also learn to analyze data and present findings. Thus, summer undergraduate students and high school teachers in Dr. Cushing’s laboratory will be exposed to a variety of techniques used in the field of neuroscience.