In the Latin American country of Ecuador, during semana santa or Holy Week, everyone eats the creamy soup, fanesca. Fanesca is an old Spanish word that literally means mixture and its significance is apparent if you try the hearty soup made of every grain in the kitchen, peanut butter, cheese, and white fish (and that doesn’t cover the small food items you add as garnishes later). At first, you might find yourself being slightly ill-at-ease by the thick consistency as the cream-based liquid coats your taste buds and the slightly fishy overtones mix with the peanutty aroma. It’s difficult to notice that there are beans and quinoa mixed in as you reluctantly finish the first bowl. The next days give rise to more fanesca and over the course of the week you find yourself enjoying the soup more and asking for seconds (maybe even thirds): congratulations! You’ve experienced the behavioral phenomenon called the attenuation of neophobia. Neophobia being, literally, a fear of the new and its decrease over the course of days has been studied as a model of learning and memory. Recently, however, research from the Katz lab at Brandeis University has shown that there is another version of this attenuation that occurs over the course of twenty to thirty minutes. This recent discovery will form the basis of my internship this summer.
The Katz lab at Brandeis University has a history of using a seemingly simple neural system (i.e. the chemical senses system) to reveal more about neural activity, systems interactions, and behavioral processes. It is a research laboratory in Waltham, MA that uses rats as a model organism for these systems. The lab is under the direction of Professor Donald Katz and has ten members ranging from post-doctorate fellows to undergraduates. As mentioned above, my internship will require that I perform a new and exciting experiment regarding the recently described behavior; the project is, in essence, to inject a chemical compound directly into the brain blocking the often-seen attenuation and determining if there is any effect on the more rapid, and less understood, attenuation. Eventually, I will be responsible for analyzing the data which will shed more light on this mysterious aspect of taste memory. This data may also serve as a foundation for future research that has clinical implications because the same circuitry has been implicated in anxiety disorders.
I have known about the Katz lab since I started my education at Brandeis with Professor Katz as my academic adviser. Sophomore year I gained a better understanding of the work done in the lab, at which time my interest grew. Starting in my junior year I worked in the lab part-time, and during this time I worked on a former post-doctorate fellow’s project that was used to describe the rapid attenuation. From this, Professor Katz and I designed the new project that forms the basis of my internship.
Though I just started on Monday, June 4th, work is already under way. My project entails many technical skills and this first week I have not only observed those techniques in action, but also tried my hand at a few. The other undergraduate researchers, post-doctorate fellows and Professor Katz, himself, are all incredibly helpful and the overall attitude in the lab is that of helpfulness and camaraderie. I remember this feeling when I first started working in the lab and am sure that it will remain throughout the summer.
– Kevin Monk ’13