Researcher’s Work Could Help You Sleep Easier

Andrew Fitzgerald is a research technologist working in a behavioral neuroscience lab at a research university in Chicago. He recently took time out of his busy schedule to talk with us about the interesting work he is doing on a new and promising sleep apnea drug.

Fitzgerald explains that behavioral neuroscience is “an area of experimental psychology which studies the biology of behavior.” As a student, Fitzgerald was fortunate enough to complete two semesters of research in a neuropsychopharmacology laboratory while simultaneously earning his undergraduate degree. This work allowed him to improve his skills, earning him a position in his current lab doing work he is passionate about. He highlights that this type of experience is invaluable to students hoping to have a career in this field.

Fitzgerald’s lab is currently testing the effects of a new sleep apnea drug on rats. According to Andrew, a lot of behavioral neuroscience experiments use animal models because some of the tests are not safe for humans. However, if the findings from these types of experiments are positive, eventually the drug can go on to human trials. The lab uses Brown-Norway rats, which are known to have many apneas during sleep, making them the best species for this experiment.

As Fitzgerald explains: “The overall goal of the study is to examine the effects of hyperoxia, which is an excess supply of oxygen, on reversal learning in an animal model of sleep apnea.” In order to accomplish this, the rats are placed in a dryland Morris water maze, which is a common setup to test spatial memory. Next, the rats must learn how to find a piece of cereal within the maze. Once the rats become acclimated to this setup, experimentation begins. Overnight, half of the rats are exposed to hyperoxia, and the other half are exposed to normal room air, which acts as the control. Researchers measure the rats’ brain and muscle activity and respiration rates throughout the night. The following day, the rats attempt to find a second piece of cereal placed on the opposite side of the maze, which tests their reversal learning. Brain fluid is also collected from the rats to measure any experimental impacts. So far, the study has found that hyperoxia impairs reversal learning.

Fitzgerald mentioned that working in a lab where live animals are present requires a lot of dedication. Animals who are on food restriction or who are undergoing behavioral task training need constant supervision. This means that behavioral neuroscience researchers often work weekends and holidays. Additionally, one small snafu during the procedures can add hours to a day’s work. “If something goes wrong during microdialysis, for example, if the probe that collects the fluid breaks, we are usually there until about 6:30 pm to finish even though we start early in the morning.”

While it is a major time commitment, Andrew does not find himself bored at work, as his work tasks can vary from day to day, and even moment to moment. Typically, he spends time weighing, feeding, and training the rats. He also analyzes test results from the rats to determine if sleep apneas occurred overnight. He is also responsible for harvesting and examining brain material from the rats.

Additionally, Fitzgerald and his fellow researchers spend a lot of time collecting data. They use whole body plethysmography chambers to record EEG, EMG and respiration data from the rats. They also use vivo microdialysis to collect extracellular fluid from the rats’ brains. Andrew described this process as “a very tedious task that requires a lot of preparation.”

Working as a behavioral neuroscience researcher requires passion and dedication. Fitzgerald must continually overcome challenges in the lab and work long hours to ensure the experiment is running successfully. The reward at the end of the journey is the encouraging potential of conveying a new drug to the market that improves the lives of thousands of patients.

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