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). Prairie voles are socially monogamous rodents, with males and females forming long-lasting pair bonds and both sexes providing care to offspring. Interestingly, prairie voles originating from Illinois (IL) display high levels of these prosocial behaviors, whereas prairie voles from Kansas (KN) display lower levels. The differences between IL and KN voles are maintained under laboratory conditions and appear to be controlled by the maternal population of origin. We are focusing on epigenetic regulation of oxytocin, vasopressin, and estrogen receptors as potential mechanisms contributing to this behavioral diversity.

Significance of the work

Positive social interactions are disrupted in a number of neurological disorders, including autism and drug addiction. However, the cause of social deficits in these disorders remains largely unknown. Most importantly, no effective drugs are currently available to treat these disorders, due in large part to the lack of appropriate preclinical models. Therefore, our strategy is to elucidate the neural mechanism(s) that contribute to differences in social behavior, and how these mechanisms are disrupted/altered by drug abuse.

Research questions

Specifically our research will address the following questions:

  •  What are the neurobiological differences between IL and KN prairie voles, and how do they contribute to differences in social organization?
  • Can developmental interventions reverse the maternal programming of social behavior that occurs during the neonatal period?
  • What is the role of the different estrogen receptors (ERa and ERb) in prosocial behavior in males and females?
  • Does compulsive drug 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, including social behavior tests (e.g., partner preference formation and alloparental care), intravenous drug self-administration, Immunohistochemistry, immunofluorescence, and laser-capture micro-dissection. Thus, summer undergraduate students and high school teachers in Dr. Cushing’s laboratory will be exposed to standard and cutting-edge techniques in the field of neuroscience.