News

December 21, 2007

The Biology of a Black-Out

Katie Schultes ’08 explores how alcohol affects memory in honors research

Katie Schultes ’08 (West Deptford, N.J.) is a biology major. She is performing honors research on the biological mechanisms that connect alcohol intoxication and memory deficits with Elaine Reynolds, associate professor of biology and chair of neuroscience. The following is a first-person account about her research project.

Alcohol is one of the most widely abused drugs on college campuses and besides the noticeable effects of slurred speech, blurred vision, and lowered reaction times, it also heavily impairs memory. On many occasions, alcohol abusers suffer from the effects of this alcohol amnesia better known as a black-out.

In order to investigate a little bit more about the biological mechanisms that connect alcohol intoxication and memory deficits, I embarked on a thesis project with my advisor Elaine Reynolds. Although I am sure a number of college students would be willing participants, my choice of study subject was one that Professor Reynolds had worked extensively with, the Drosophila melanogaster, better known as the fruit fly.

One of the most challenging features of creating an experimental layout was finding a way to link different parts of memory with the fruit fly. Having numerous contacts, Professor Reynolds was able to connect me with Moravian professor and Drosophila expert, Chris Jones, who helped me extensively with his knowledge of a courtship assay that tests both learning and memory in the Drosophila. The courtship assay involves the associative learning of the “anti-aphrodisiac” odors from fertilized females with the mating rejection resulting in mating depression. In varying the exposure of alcohol to the fly and its stage in this assay, I hope to be able to see the influence alcohol has on learning, memory formation, and memory retrieval.

After hearing the setup, many people, including my parents, asked what correlation fruit fly research can have on those biological mechanisms of humans. However, use of the Drosophila as a research model has been extremely beneficial in pharmaceutical and genetic researching, from Parkinson’s disease, drug addictions, Alzheimer’s disease, even epilepsy. Therefore, I hope my experiment can further reveal the mechanistic defects that alcohol can have on the body.

Having been lucky to have Professor Reynolds in lecture, I have enjoyed working with her on a one-on-one basis. Her wealth of experience on different lab techniques and knowledge about Drosophila has been extremely helpful as I gain comfort in the lab and finalize the experimental setup.

Although completing a thesis demands a lot of self-motivation and hours in the laboratory, I have enjoyed the flexibility of creating my own schedule with the project. This semester has been hectic traveling to medical school interviews, and my time commitments to both the Varsity Cross Country and Track teams, the peer mentor program, leadership positions in Alpha Phi and being a tour guide. However, I am convinced that this research will help me become a better doctor as it instills both investigative skills, a comfort in reading primary literature, and of course betters my motor dexterity in working with such small creatures.

I am hopeful that the results of this research may contribute to a better understanding of the mechanisms of memory, specifically the cAMP pathway and the neural disruption that alcohol intoxication may have on this intracellular pathway. I have always enjoyed helping people, a major motivation in pursuing a career in medicine, and I hope that this research will also fulfill this role. Who knows? With the benefits of my research, maybe college students across the country will no longer suffer the effects of alcohol amnesia, and will be able to remember exactly what happened last Saturday night.

The opportunity to do a thesis is just one more example of the endless possibilities that Lafayette has to offer. I have been extremely fortunate to be very involved on campus from my involvement in athletics, community service, and even participation in an interim trip abroad to Paris.

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