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Neuroscience Booming at AU

By Patty Housman

Terry Davidson and Colin Saldanha

Photo of Terry Davidson and Colin Saldanha by Jeff Watts.

American University is serious about the sciences. In the past two years, the university has established the Center for Behavioral Neuroscience, launched a new BS in neuroscience, hired prominent new faculty, and broken ground on the state-of-the-art Don Myers Technology and Innovation Building.

"Together these initiatives are bringing together scientists and other faculty across AU into a growing hub of research excellence," says Peter Starr, dean of the College of Arts and Sciences. "Our emphasis is on innovation, collaboration, and building the university's physical and intellectual resources in the sciences."

Center for Behavioral Neuroscience

The Center for Behavioral Neuroscience, established in 2012, provides a research and training environment for faculty in different disciplines to work collaboratively to generate new ideas, methods, and discoveries about the brain and how it works.

"Our center integrates knowledge in psychology, biology, chemistry, and physics with neuroanatomy and physiology to advance our understanding of the cognitive, emotional, sensory, and regulatory functions that underlie human behavior," says Terry Davidson, professor of psychology and founding director of the center. "We are adding faculty lines, hosting international symposiums, and building core research facilities. With exciting new hires like biology professor Mark Laubach, who studies what happens in our brains when our expectations are violated, and SETH professor Kathleen Holton, who focuses on nutritional neuroscience, we are greatly expanding our intellectual resources."

Neuroscience is a rapidly growing, multidisciplinary field. Neuroscientists tackle complex health-related problems,including obesity, depression, addiction, and cognitive dementia—some of the most costly and widespread threats to human well-being and quality of life. 

Davidson's most recent research, for example, focuses on diet and obesity. It indicates that diets high in saturated fat and refined sugar may cause changes to the brains of obese people. These changes may fuel over consumption of fatty and sugary foods and make weight loss more challenging, creating a vicious cycle. In his most recent paper, published by the journal Neurobiology of Learning and Memory, Davidson makes the case for treating obesity with therapies aimed at areas of the brain responsible for memory and other cognitive processes. 

This month the center will host its first Childhood Obesity and Cognition Symposium, which will bring together scientists to present their perspectives on the effects of obesity, diet, and physical exercise on the cognitive functioning of children and adolescents.

"We are very excited about the symposium," says Davidson. "AU faculty and other top scientists from around the world will share groundbreaking research that may make a real difference in treating these critical health issues." 

The center also sponsors interdisciplinary events, like an ongoing speaker series, a lecture program, an annual retreat, and a journal club. "I believe the greatest strength of the center is its focus on research and scholarship across a diverse set of areas in behavioral neuroscience," says Colin Saldanha, biology department chair and director of the neuroscience program. "This inclusive attitude promotes synergies across individuals and departments and strengthens AU's reputation as a university that supports scientific investigation and teaching. I am looking forward to watching the center grow to include more faculty and more areas of neuroscience."


BS in Neuroscience

This fall the College launched its first undergraduate degree in neuroscience. It focuses on preparing students to meet the interdisciplinary challenges of this expanding field, offering courses from different departments in the College. Students will take core courses in neuroscience and will do additional course work in basic biology, psychology, chemistry, physics, and quantitative reasoning, all of which will provide them with a solid general science background. 

"Students will also receive training in using the scientific method, lab techniques,and computational science to address cutting-edge questions in neuroscience," says Saldanha. "Our goal is to fully prepare students to work on a range of problems that are important for physical health, mental health, and, perhaps most importantly, to lay the foundation towards understanding what it means to be human."


Don Myers Technology and Innovation Building

Work has begun on the Don Myers Technology and Innovation Building on the forthcoming East Campus. The building will provide a cutting-edge and collaborative learning environment for the departments of computer science, physics, mathematics and statistics, and the new game design and persuasive play program in partnership with the School of Communication. The building will feature flexible collaboration space, the AU Game Lab, a problem-based instructional studio, computer classrooms, seminar space, and faculty offices and research labs.

"Substantial progress has already been made in gathering departments and programs together by similar disciplines to create purposeful learning spaces," says Starr. "The new technology and innovation building is the next step,and it will serve as an incubator for new collaboration among the sciences at American University."