Natural Models for Studying Brain and Behavior

(Pictured here with California sea lion “Ronan,” a member of UCSC’s Pinniped Cognition and Sensory Systems Laboratory, NMFS 932-1905/MA-009526)

Use of animal minds as models for human minds is pervasive in cognitive neuroscience. Unfortunately, there is a pair of fundamental flaws underlying the vast majority of this research: the model species chosen have been inbred to limit genetic diversity and the individual representatives of those species studied are subjected to unnatural and extremely restricted environmental conditions during the course of development. The impact of inbreeding and impoverished developmental environments on behavior and brain development has been well documented in humans and other species, and is potentially very severe. This dominant research model has, and will continue to, produce meaningful results. However, the need for alternative models is increasingly apparent.

In my work, I seek to develop alternative animal models with which to study brain and behavior using a range of tools, including behavioral approaches, structural MRI, and fMRI. I am particularly focused on ecological validity. Wild animals represent a compelling target for this type of research — their genetic variability and natural course of brain development suggests they can serve as more representative of actual humans — who are not, after all, raised in the laboratory from inbred strains. Wild models are inherently messy, and the logistical hurdles in utilizing them in research are not inconsiderable. However, the benefits of this sort of ecologically valid research are worth the risk and effort. My dissertation on memory in wild California sea lions with naturally occurring hippocampal damage seeks to validate one available alternative model, and serves as a proof of concept for this approach.