Research Study Funded by the National Institute of Health Aims to Characterize Brain Circuits of Fear

November 05, 2014

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CORPUS CHRISTI, Texas – Studying how snails react to aversive stimuli may help understand how fear alters brain activity in humans, research that may ultimately lead to a better understanding of conditions, such as post-traumatic stress disorder.

Research in the lab of Dr. Riccardo Mozzachiodi, Associate Professor of Neuroscience at Texas A&M University-Corpus Christi, combines biomedical research, marine biology and neuroscience.

Mozzachiodi and his team are studying the marine snail Aplysia californica, with its elementary nervous system that operates at a single-cell level in the same way as the human brain, but with only about 20,000 neurons instead of billions.

“We are studying a very universal problem,” he said. “How an animal’s brain responds to fear and remembers it. We are studying this problem in a relatively simple brain, so we can directly see changes happening at a cellular level in the neural circuits, the  ensembles of brain cells that perform a specific function, that are affected by fear. We can then extrapolate the knowledge acquired in Aplysia to more complex organisms.”

Mozzachiodi’s research recently received $225,000 for three years of funding from the National Institute of Health. The project, “Analysis of the effects of aversive experience on non-defensive behaviors and underlying neural circuits” will be conducted in its entirety at A&M-Corpus Christi. Find a synopsis of the project at:

http://projectreporter.nih.gov/project_info_description.cfm?aid=8742159&icde=22077590.

In the lab, Mozzachiodi’s team will induce in the snails a state of fear similar to that experienced following a predators’ attack. This state of fear causes changes in behaviors -- increased defenses and reduced feeding -- that are commonly observed throughout the animal kingdom. The project will examine the changes in the neural circuits altered by fear and characterize underlying cellular and molecular mechanisms.

“The findings obtained from this line of work in the snail Aplysia seek to explain the logic behind the modulation of neural circuits in more complex animals, including humans,” he says.

 Mozzachiodi said he hopes that this knowledge will ultimately help achieve a better understanding of forms of mental illness, including post-traumatic stress disorder, in which individuals who experienced a traumatic event suffer from fears that are no longer a present danger.

Mozzachiodi explains that this research could lead to a better understanding of the role of neurotransmitters in the formation of fear.

“We’ve all heard of dopamine and serotonin,” he said. “Those molecules can be found in the brain of most animals, including Aplysia. We, humans, have more neurons, more circuits, but it is based on the same concepts. In this project, the role of different neurotransmitters in the brain circuits altered by fear will be investigated using cellular and pharmacological approaches.”

Mozzachiodi has studied snails and the link to more complex brains for 15 years. His research into fear response and memory previously received funding from the National Science Foundation.

Mozzachiodi joined the Texas A&M-Corpus Christi faculty in August 2007 as an Assistant Professor of Neuroscience. He received his Ph.D. at the University of Pisa in Pisa, Italy, and was a post-doctoral fellow at the University of Texas - Health Science Center in Houston.