LSU Biology Professor Lattin Receives NSF CAREER Award

March 07, 2023

BATON ROUGE, LA – LSU Biological Sciences Assistant Professor Christine Lattin was recently awarded a National Science Foundation CAREER Award for her work on understanding neophobia in house sparrows. Neophobia is defined as fearful behavior towards anything new or unfamiliar, and is a trait that is shared across many animals. A better understanding of neophobic tendencies could, in the long term, help diagnose and treat anxiety and other mental illness in people.

“We care about neophobia because it is a trait that is not only found in birds but also in humans, and neophobia can be linked to anxiety, depression, and other types of mental illness in humans and in laboratory models. Understanding more about neophobia and how we can alleviate it could lead to the use of interventions like social learning to help people cope with new things in their environment that can cause them stress.” Said Dr. Lattin. Christine Lattin looking through a microscope

The NSF CAREER Award is the organization’s most prestigious award offered in support of early-career faculty who have the potential to serve as academic role models in research and education and to lead advances in the mission of their department or organization. Lattin’s total award is more than $1,000,000.

“This award is a continuation of work we have been doing in the lab. The house sparrow is a great model for these studies because some individuals act fearful towards new things such as food, objects, or environments, and some individuals do not act fearful at all. We are trying to understand what the difference is, in terms of neurobiology, that leads to these different behaviors.” 

One focus of this research is a part of the brain called the hippocampus, which is found in all vertebrate animals. The hippocampus helps with spatial navigation, helping you to map your environment and notice new things in that environment, and is also involved in regulating hormonal stress responses. 

This grant will help Dr. Lattin’s lab understand whether the hippocampus is a critical region of the brain involved in neophobia. For example, they are working on a project where they will manipulate the hippocampus in birds to see if it changes their neophobic behavior. Based on their past work, they know that a bird’s behavior can change. By putting neophobic and non-neophobic birds together and testing them together, birds that would previously act neophobic can learn from non-neophobic birds that they do not need to be fearful. Then when they are exposed to new novel objects later, even after they are on their own again, the birds that had this learning experience act less fearful.

Understanding neophobia can help us determine what animals will survive in a human-altered world. Whether or not animals will interact with novelty has an impact on whether they will live in urban and suburban landscapes, use new nesting sites, eat novel foods, and avoid or interact with novel things that can be threats, such as cars.

“It is important for us to understand what the response of animals will be; which species will survive, and which may even benefit in some ways from a human-altered world.”

Through three linked research and educational aims, this research will engage a diverse population of undergraduate students in an active research program in the neurobiology of behavior, and develop a clear and replicable approach for how to combine research and teaching at a large public university. This research will also provide critical insights into how differences in neurobiology can lead to differences in behavior, and reveal how social experiences may change the brain to decrease fearful behavior towards novelty.

The first aim of Dr. Lattin’s work is to manipulate the hippocampus in birds to see if it increases or decreases neophobia. 

The second aim will be to look at what changes in the brain when sparrows show a change in behavior from social learning. Dr. Lattin will collaborate with Dr. Lauren O'Connell, Assistant Professor of Biology at Stanford University, who has adapted a technique called phosphoTRAP that is used to profile activated neurons. This will allow Dr. Lattin to sequence transcripts from only the activated neurons in the brain and see what they are transcribing. 

“We are doing cutting-edge work that should help us understand what the specific molecular mediators are for this change in behavior that affects neophobia.”

The third aim will be the education component. Dr. Lattin will create a new CURE (Course-based Undergraduate Research Experience) lab working with Graduate TAs and the LSU CURE lab coordinator, Mindy McCallum, which has two parts to it. Part one will focus on trying to understand whether neophobia is correlated with other behaviors. Are the birds that are more fearful also more active? Are they less food motivated? Students will use videos from control trials and decide for themselves what other behaviors they are interested in measuring. They will gain experience with behavioral methods and learn how to quantify behaviors. Lattin in the field checking bird nest

The second part of the CURE lab will involve molecular work, using a technique called qPCR to look at what genes are “turned on” in other regions of the brain connected to the hippocampus and which might differ in neophobic and non-neophobic birds. Again, students will learn about several possible genes and decide which of these genes to measure for themselves. This will give them experience in molecular techniques. 

The CURE lab will roll out in year three of the grant and will be offered in the Fall semester. 

“This is really exciting because it is an original, authentic research experience and I am really hoping that a lot of what the students discover will help inform future grant proposals on neophobia.”  

The grant will fund new equipment for Dr. Lattin's lab, including a qPCR machine that will allow them to measure gene expression. She will also hire a postdoc that will travel to O'Connell's lab at Stanford to use phosphoTRAP and will also fund research assistantships for the graduate students who will assist with the newly formed CURE lab. 

Maheshi Dassanayake, who is an Associate Professor in Biology at LSU, will be a collaborator and will help to analyze phosophoTRAP data.