Students research use of rats in behavioral neuroscience 

Natayla Khutsishvili, University of La Verne alumna, was one of two students who had their research paper published in Impulse, a peer reviewed neuroscience journal. It was a project they worked on under the guidance of Dinko Krajac, assistant psychology professor who leads the psychoneuroimmunology research lab that investigates the behavioral and neurobiological consequences of immune activation. / photo by Kaylie Ennis
Natayla Khutsishvili, University of La Verne alumna, was one of two students who had their research paper published in Impulse, a peer reviewed neuroscience journal. It was a project they worked on under the guidance of Dinko Krajac, assistant psychology professor who leads the psychoneuroimmunology research lab that investigates the behavioral and neurobiological consequences of immune activation. / photo by Kaylie Ennis

Amy Alcantara
Staff Writer 

Two research assistants, John Calvo and Natalya Khutsishvili, who worked in the University of La Verne’s research lab, have published a paper on the value of using rats in behavioral neuropsychiatry in the peer-reviewed neuroscience journal Impulse, which focuses on undergraduate research work in the neurosciences.

Calvo and Khutsishvili worked along with Assistant Professor of Psychology Dinko Kranjac for their publication of the mini-review.

Khutsishvili said she worked with Calvo on this paper as part of her first research project. She said this topic was very important to determine what the benefit is and what they learn from the analysis. It also helped them gain more knowledge on why they should use the models over anything else during research.

“It was a lot more informative and a way for us to get our feet wet in terms of conducting research,” Khutsishvili said.

Calvo said, with animal research most times it could be disconnected from what a person might imagine psychological research to be. There are a lot of questions that come up in terms of how translational all of the results are due to the many layers involved with these types of experiments.

“If you are doing drug research on rats for some sort of drug that would affect humans with depression, is it going to affect the rats the same way it affects the humans,” Calvo said.

Calvo clarified that there was no actual physical interaction between them and the animals. For this paper, they focused on and covered research that has already been conducted. It goes over the current research, debates and discussions in science.

Animals such as rabbits, snakes, dogs and even pigs have been used for different research in the past. The article, “Mini-review: Translational Value of Rodent Models in Behavioral Neuropsychiatry,” highlights the animal research that has been conducted previously and has brought big changes.

“The list is just to show some examples of animal contribution to research,” Calvo said. “Cows and their contribution to research on smallpox. I know there are a lot of contributions to vaccine research when working on monkeys.”

Due to morality reasons and easy access, rodents are the most common animals used for research. Khutsishvili said the advantage of using rodents is that the results are more accurate because they resemble humans more closely than other animals. She explained that most rodents are released to live after the experiments and even if they are not, they tend to live longer in “captivity” than any other animal would.

Khutsishvili said models need to be created for the rats in terms of showing and displaying the changes in behavior. According to research and the National Institute of Mental Health, depression can be a combination of different symptoms. Loss of interest or pleasure in activities, energy, self-worth, concentration, appetite and sleep problems are some symptoms of depression among others. 

When it comes to animal research it is not as easy to determine if the rats they are conducting this experiment on are really depressed. One of the many questions that come up during research is if the results that they receive with the rats are going to be the same when applied to human models.

According to Calvo, through the literature review, they concluded that experimentation in animals, specifically in rodents, is extremely important. This type of research is something that will continue in science and is necessary because humans cannot be exposed to experiments like these. 

He believes as time goes on with more research scientists will be able to account for the differences between rodents and human beings. With more information scientists would be able to solve some of the smaller details that have not yet been accounted for. For example, hormonal differences that would change results between rats and humans physiology.

“The research needs to be tweaked,” Calvo said. “More information needs to be brought up in order to make it more perfected.”

Khutsishvili graduated with her bachelor’s degree in biology from ULV last year. She is now a clinical psychology graduate student with an emphasis on marriage and family therapy at Pepperdine University. Although the mini-review paper was her first and only peer-reviewed article, she is open to publishing more in the future. Calvo graduated last year from ULV with a bachelor’s degree in psychology. He is now a site leader for an educational program.

Kranjac said publishing a peer-reviewed article is difficult and the numbers are very low. He said the students who commit to it invest a lot of work, extra time and a lot of effort. Sometimes they have to try different journals or change their approach.

Students working with Kranjac are given the opportunity to work on their own for the most part. He said he is “hands-off” until they give him a product and he provides them with some directions. He trusts that it is something his students are interested in and lets them structure the paper and do the writing.

“Rather than dictating all the small steps along the way, I see myself as someone who looks at the big picture,” Kranjac said. “I contribute from my experience and knowledge.”

He said it is important to point out there are more professors and assistants involved in research. It is a joint effort with psychology and to help students get to where they need to be. 

Graduate schools are becoming more competitive, Nicole Mahrer, assistant professor of psychology, said it is important for students who plan to go to graduate school to have some research experience, publications and go to conferences and give poster presentations because it will make them stand out. Students who attend conferences get the opportunity to network and learn about other work being done or schools they would want to go to.

Mahrer said research takes a long time and if students are interested in doing poster presentations and publications, they have a better chance if they start early.

“It’s important to contact professors early if you are interested in their work or lab,” Mahrer said. “See if they have any openings for you to join and help.”

Amy Alcantara can be reached at amairani.alcantaramontes@laverne.edu. 

Kaylie Ennis is a senior photography major and a staff photographer for the Campus Times and La Verne Magazine. Originally from Washington state, she enjoys cars and nature photography.

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