Current Research

Members of the Howland Laboratory are currently working in two main areas:

1. Effects of acute stress on cognition and synaptic plasticity:

The neurobiological mechanisms enabling cognition remain poorly characterized. Converging lines of evidence suggest that various forms of synaptic plasticity may underlie cognitive processes such as learning and memory, although direct evidence supporting this hypothesis is lacking. As a result, novel experimental models and pharmacological tools to test these mechanisms are critically needed. Acute stress has profound and complex effects on learning and memory, as well as synaptic plasticity. Therefore, understanding how acute stress influences learning and memory will provide insight into the neurobiological mechanisms underlying cognition. Experiments performed in this line of research focus on understanding the effects of acute stress on cognition and synaptic plasticity using a combination of sensitive behavioral testing, in vivo extracellular electrophysiology recording techniques, and novel pharmacological strategies in rodent models. These experiments will significantly improve our understanding of advanced cognitive functions from an integrated behavioural and physiological perspective. This research is funded by an NSERC Discovery Grant.

2. Neurodevelopmental models of severe psychiatric illness:

Psychiatric illness severely affects many thousands of Canadians. Increased understanding of the causes of psychiatric illness may aid in the goal of developing improved treatments or preventative therapies. Adverse events early in life are strongly associated with psychiatric illnesses such as schizophrenia and autism. Recent evidence provides direct support for the role of prenatal infection (i.e., exposure to an infection while in utero) as a predisposing factor for psychiatric illness in the offspring. Experiments performed in this line of research seek to further understand the specific consequences of prenatal infection using a rat model of viral infection. Discrete measures of cognition are correlated with electrophysiological recordings from brain areas thought be involved in neurodevelopmental psychiatric disorders (i.e., hippocampus, prefrontal cortex, nucleus accumbens) in rats whose mothers were exposed to either a viral mimetic compound or a control treatment while pregnant. In addition, the effects of novel therapeutic strategies are also tested. These experiments will significantly increase understanding of the consequences of prenatal infection and potentially provide novel avenues for prevention of psychiatric illnesses such as schizophrenia and autism. This research is funded by a CIHR Operating Grant.