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Young Psychology Professor Leads His Field

University of Massachusetts assistant psychology professor Luke Remage-Healey was recognized  as a leader in his field by the Society for Behavioral Neuroendocrinology on Oct. 15 with the 2012 Frank A. Beach Award.

Remage-Healey, 34, is one of the youngest recipients of the award, according to Jeffrey Blaustein, the society’s president.

The award is presented to up-and-coming researchers who have received their Ph.D. within eight years and “show exceptional promise for making significant contributions to the field,” according to the society’s website.

The award was presented at a meeting of neuroscientists from all over the world, who gathered in New Orleans last week.

Behavioral neuroendocrinology, or the study of how chemicals in the brain produce behavior, represents just one small subset of the neuroscientists who attended the “impressive and overwhelming” meeting, Remage-Healey said.

Remage-Healey’s lab studies how connections between brain cells and chemical messages create human behavior. He uses animal models as a way to understand the process, but you won’t find the typical lab mice scurrying around his lab.

“We study circuits in the brain of songbirds,” Remage-Healey said. “These circuits correspond to the circuits that humans use for speech learning and production.”

The way a bird learns how to sing and how a human learns how to speak and understand speech is “strikingly similar,” Remage-Healey added.

The chemical messengers that play a role in facilitating this process are hormones called estrogens. Although estrogens tend to be associated with female reproduction, “there’s a lot of estrogen production in men as well as women and the same thing is happening in the songbirds,” Remage-Healey said.

Remage-Healey has found that estrogens are also important for learning and memory. In both humans and songbirds, estrogen is produced in brain areas that “have nothing to do with reproduction,” but rather in areas associated with processing senses like sights and sounds and producing movement.

“Estrogens help strengthen brain cell connections involved in learning,” Remage-Healey said.

People with abnormal estrogen levels can develop a variety of neurological disorders, he said.

“We know that dysregulated estrogen production is involved in lots of human disease, like Parkinson’s, Alzheimer’s, Huntington’s disease, stroke, and in some cases depression,” Remage-Healey said.

A long-term goal of Remage-Healey’s research, he said, is to inform drug makers about the role of estrogens in the brain and for them to use that knowledge to develop effective treatments for these disorders.

“A lot of the drugs developed these days are targeting things like dopamine or serotonin or they’re targeting the recovery of function after stroke,” Remage-Healey said. “Now we’re understanding that estrogen and other steroids can be part of this picture.”

The research conducted in Remage-Healey’s lab is made possible by the help of UMass undergraduate students.

“I like to involve as many as we can accommodate because it’s a wonderful way for students to learn firsthand what research is all about,” Remage-Healy said.

Students do a number of things to help support the lab’s research. Some have their own independent projects or are working on an honors thesis. Others help out with daily tasks like taking care of the songbirds.

Remage-Healy encourages students who have an interest in research to get started early. “You don’t have to know everything about a field to get involved in research,” Remage-Healey added.

Remage-Healy said students who are thinking about pursuing research in graduate school should think about the classes they really enjoyed and what ideas in textbooks peaked their interest.

“Chances are somebody is pursuing that research question and you can find out where they are and what they’re doing,” Remage-Healey said.

Remage-Healey got his first taste of the research process as an undergraduate at Tufts University in Medford. While there, he worked with a researcher on a project about hormones and stress in birds.

“Once I got into it, I was hooked,” Remage-Healey said.

He went on to graduate school at Cornell University and completed postdoctoral training at University of California Los Angeles.

Remage-Healey said there’s a lot of delayed gratification between years of education and collecting and analyzing data.

“In science, a lot of experiments don’t work,” Remage-Healey said. “A lot of things are great ideas that end up flopping because the data come back and show you that nature doesn’t work that way.

“By experiencing the ups and downs of research, you are better able to evaluate the results when they do work out. But that’s the real kick, making discoveries,” Remage-Healey said.

Remage-Healey and the UMass Center for Neuroendocrine Studies will be presenting its annual symposium on Friday, Oct. 26, in the Student Union. This year’s theme is “The Motivated Brain: Hormones, Learning, and Reward.”

Leaders in behavioral neuroendocrinology, including three former Frank A. Beach award winners, will be speaking about their research.The symposium is open to the public, but seating is limited and online registration is required by visiting http://www.umass.edu/cns/symposium.htm.

{ A version of this article appeared in the Massachusetts Daily Collegian on October 22, 2012. }

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