SFN 2019 for the Slug Lab

We’ve just wrapped up a great Society for Neuroscience conference for the slug lab. This year’s meeting (2019) was held right here in Chicago, which provided lots of opportunities for our talented crop of students.

We presented a poster examining the time course of forgetting and transcriptional changes at the undergraduate session and at the main meeting. Leading the poster presentation were Tania Rosiles and Melissa Nguyen. After warming up in the undergrad session they were bombarded with tough questions at the main meeting–and they handled themselves amazingly well, doing an awesome job presenting the research. Here they, basking in the knowledge that they had completely crushed it:

Tania Rosiles and Melissa Nguyen presenting that the 2019 Society for Neuroscience Meeting.

I guess they made a big splash, because later at the meeting, guess who asked me for a selfie?

Bob, Nobel-Prize Winner Eric Kandel, and Lisa Gabel. Kandel’s the one in the middle.

Ok – maybe it was me asking Kandel for a selfie, but either way it was cool to briefly meet the godfather of sea slug studies at the meeting.

Sluglab 2019 – It will be an unforgettable summer

It’s summer and the slug lab is rocking. We have 8 students working in the lab (!), and a number of really exciting projects.

Here’s the lab photo to start the summer.

From left to right: Kiara Rana, Dr. C-J, Dr.Bob, Tania Rosiles, George Garcia, Annette Garcia, Hannah Gordon, Lorena Juarez, Monica Duron, and Melissa Nguyen

We knew this spring that we had recruited a special group of students in to the lab. So far the work this summer has confirmed our hunch–we’ve already completed two rounds of behavioral testing, students are making progress learning qPCR, and yesterday we had a great start to learning electrophysiology. I’m sure we’ll have our ups and downs, but it seems like we’re poised for a fun and productive summer.

Projects we’ll be working on include: 1) investigating if savings memories are re-formed or re-covered, 2) investigating the role of the peptide transmitter FMRF-amide in forgetting, 3) exploring the role of methylation in memory maintenance, and 4) some exciting pilot testing with a paradigm for sensitization in fruit fly larva, in collaboration with Scott Kreher in biology.

Our work this summer continues to be supported by the NIH (our current R15 expired at the end of May, but looks like it will be renewed starting July 1). Huzzah.

In addition, Dominican has received a generous donation from Joe Moskal to start the Moskal scholars program. Joe is a professor of biomedical engineering at Northwestern, a biotech entrepreneur, a Dominican trustee, and an all-around amazing guy. He generously helped Irina and me develop pilot data for our first grant and provided a sparkling letter of support… so it is no exaggeration to say he has already helped make the slug lab what it is today.

This year, Joe took the next step in his efforts to develop and broaden the biotech pipeline by funding the Moskal scholars program. Over the next five years this program will fund students interested in careers in the life and health sciences to spend a summer engaged in intensive research. The goal is for students to have the space, mentoring, and encouragement to develop their skills and passions in the science, and to launch them forward to great things.

Our first two Moskal scholars are Annette Garcia and Tania Rosiles. Tania will be spending her second summer in the slug lab–she’s already gained tremendous lab skills and helped co-author our recent paper on the long-term transcriptional response to sensitization ​(Patel et al., 2018)​. Annette is new to the lab, but was a star in Dr. C-J’s neurobiology class and has already been making big strides in the lab.

The inaugural Moskal Scholars: Annette Garcia and Tania Rosiles

Neither Irina nor I would be where we are today if we hadn’t been fortunate enough to have amazing summer experiences. For Irina it was a summer working at Loyola Medical School. For me, it was a summer at Carnegie Mellon. In both cases it was generous funding from sponsors that enabled us to forgo our usual summer jobs and spend 3 months in intense and life-altering contemplation and study. We are so excited and proud to pay that forward each summer with a new batch of slug lab recruits, and we’re extremely grateful to Joe Moskal for his generosity and support.

One of our annual summer traditions is having DU photographer Ryan Pagelow come to the lab for a group photo and some science B-roll. As always, he does an amazing job. Here’s this year’s album:

  1. Patel, U., Perez, L., Farrell, S., Steck, D., Jacob, A., Rosiles, T., … Calin-Jageman, I. E. (2018). Transcriptional changes before and after forgetting of a long-term sensitization memory in Aplysia californica. Neurobiology of Learning and Memory, 474–485. doi: 10.1016/j.nlm.2018.09.007

SlugLab Alum Derek Stek heading to medical school with a full ride scholarship

Graduates of the sluglab have been moving on to amazing careers. So we were excited to get the news that lab alumni and neuroscience major Derek Stek has just been offered a full scholarship to attend medical school at the School of Medicine and Public Health at the University of Wisconsin. Woo hoo!

The slug lab in summer of 2018. Derek is the tall guy on the left-side of the table; this was just before he shipped out to UCLA.

Derek spent the summer of 2017 working in the lab, and also did summer research programs at the University of Colorado (2016) and UCLA (2018). In the sluglab, Derek learned how to do extract RNA (which does *not* start by vortexing the DNA-ase) and conduct qPCR. He helped track the expression of several transcripts regulated after learning, and was a co-author on the lab’s most recent paper (Patel et al., 2018).

Derek was also a star outside of the classroom, playing a big part on the DU varsity basketball team. This year, as he finishes at DU, Derek has been working with children with autism and learning behavioral therapy.

Congrats, Derek!

  1. Patel, U., Perez, L., Farrell, S., Steck, D., Jacob, A., Rosiles, T., … Calin-Jageman, I. E. (2018). Transcriptional changes before and after forgetting of a long-term sensitization memory in Aplysia californica. Neurobiology of Learning and Memory, 474–485. doi:10.1016/j.nlm.2018.09.007

The remarkably long-lasting fragments of memory

It was a whirlwind 2018. Irina and I are just now catching our breath and finding some time to update the lab website.

One awesome piece of news we forgot to publicize is that our latest paper came out in the August issue of Neurobiology of Learning and Memory (Patel et al., 2018).   This paper continues our work of tracking the molecular fragments of a memory as it is forgotten.  Specifically, we tracked 11 genes we suspected of being regulated *after* forgetting (Perez, Patel, Rivota, Calin-Jageman, & Calin-Jageman, 2017).  Things didn’t work out quite as well as we had expected: of our 11 candidate genes 4 didn’t show much regulation, meaning that our previous results with these genes were probably over-estimating their importance (curse you, sampling error!).  On the other hand, we replicated the results with the other genes and found that some of them are actually regulated for up to 2 weeks after the memory is induced, long after it seems forgotten.

Here are two key figures.  The first is the memory curve for sensitization in our Aplysia -it shows that after memory induction there is strong sensitization recall that decays within a week back to baseline.  Even though the memory seems gone, giving a reminder 2 weeks after learning rekindles a weak re-expression of the memory. That’s a classic “savings” effect.  

The next figure traces the time-course of memory-induced gene expression (levels of mRNA) for 6 specific genes, measured in the pleural ganglia that contains neurons known to be important for storing sensitization memory.  You can see that each of these transcripts is up- or down-regulated within 24 hours of learning, and that in each case this regulation lasts at least a week and sometimes out to 2 weeks.  So, just as the behavioral level of the memory fades but isn’t really completely gone, the some of the transcriptional events that accompany learning also seem to persist for quite some time. 

Why would this occur?  Perhaps these transcripts are part of savings…maybe they set the stage for re-expressing the memory?  Or maybe they are actually part of forgetting, working to remove the memory?  Or maybe both?  For example, one of the transcripts is encodes an inhibitory transmitter named FMRFamide.  It is really up-regulated by learning, which would normally work against the expression of sensitization memory.  So perhaps this helps suppress the memory (forgetting), but in a way that can be easily overcome with sufficient excitation (savings)… that’s an exciting maybe, and it’s the thing we’ll be working this summer to test.

As usual, we’re so proud that this paper was made possible through exceptional hard work from some outstanding DU student researchers: Ushma Patel, Leticia Perez, Steven Farrell, Derek Steck, Athira Jacob, Tania Rosiles, and Melissa Nguyen.  Go slug squad!

Patel, U., Perez, L., Farrell, S., Steck, D., Jacob, A., Rosiles, T., … Calin-Jageman, I. E. (2018). Transcriptional changes before and after forgetting of a long-term sensitization memory in Aplysia californica. Neurobiology of Learning and Memory, 155, 474–485. doi:10.1016/j.nlm.2018.09.007
Perez, L., Patel, U., Rivota, M., Calin-Jageman, I. E., & Calin-Jageman, R. J. (2017). Savings memory is accompanied by transcriptional changes that persist beyond the decay of recall. Learning & Memory, 25(1), 45–48. doi:10.1101/lm.046250.117

When you forget

Quanta Magazine recently ran a feature article on the nature of forgetting.  The piece covers several new lines of research on forgetting, including the work we’ve been doing with Aplysia.  It’s a great piece, and it’s amazing to see strong public interest in our work.

To Remember, the Brain Must Actively Forget by Dalmeet Singh, Quanta Magazine

Of course, accolades like this would not be possible if it were not for our amazing students.  Here’s the lab enjoying our end-of-summer party.

 

DU Connections and a New Slug Home

The slug lab is kicking off summer research with a brand new aquarium and mixing station for housing Aplysia.  It’s a great upgrade and an even better story that involves some strong DU connections.

The slug lab has been running for 10 years now (gasp!) and our aquariums were showing signs of wear.  Like the wooden stand on one of the tanks starting to collapse.  Pretty strong sign.  (fortunately a student was in the room as the tank started to tip; she called for help, we drained the tank, and disaster was averted).  By fall of 2017 we were down to just 1 tank and worried about how we’d get back to 2 in time for our blitz of summer research.

DU Connection Number 1: In late fall 2017 we were thrilled to receive a McNichols grant from a Dominican Alumni.  This grant was specifically targeted at funding science education at Dominican. We had some meetings and identified several great projects that could be helped by this generous gift–work to improve our greenhouse, a new measurement instrument for the PChem lab, and… a new tank for the slug lab.  Hooray, and a big thanks to the McNichols family.

DU Connection Number 2: We knew we wanted to upgrade beyond a hobbyist tank.. but there were so many options and it was difficult to determine the best path forward.   Enter DU connection #2, Romney Cirillo and his company Something Fishy.  Romney was a business major at Dominican.  When he graduated he wasn’t entirely sure what to do.  But he remembered Al Rosenbloom’s advice to find something he was passionate about and to find a way to make it a life’s work.  Combining that advice with a great entrepreneurship class he had completed, Romney decided to start a business related to his life-long interest in raising exotic fish.  He recruited a great friend as a business partner.  Something Fishy was quickly born as a full-service aquarium design and maintenance company.   Since its founding, Something Fishy has thrived by providing great service and incredible craftsmanship.  Things were going well, so Romney started giving back to DU–installing a gorgeous salt-water tank in Parmer hall.  That’s how I met Romney and got to know Something Fishy.  So, naturally, when it came time for a new tank, Romney was the first person to call.  Thank goodness for these strong DU connections.

The amazing tank.  Romney and Mike visited the slug lab, walked us through options and designed a customized setup exactly suited for our needs:

  • a bigger tank with a better filter system
  • lower to the ground with a huge lid to make experimental access easier (our students say thank you!)
  • incredibly tough and corrosion resistant tank stand (no more collapses from wooden stands)
  • better insulation to make our chillers work less hard
  • and an incredible mixing station for making salt water, complete with a DI line and an auto-shutoff (no more leaks down into the classroom below).

We just finished our first round of experiments with animals housed in the new tank… wow!  Even on the day of shipment the tank water stayed at crystal clear.  Good water -> healthy animals -> a good platform for good science.

Not only is the tank *way* better than what we had, it looks amazing–the install is clean and sharp; it really looks space age.  Best of all, the cost was not astronomical.

So – thanks to two great DU alum we have a great new home for our animals.

Romney (right) showing me the features of the tank on install day.

Here are some photos, but they don’t really do the tank justice for how cool and clean it all looks.

First fillup. Water has just had salt added.

Smiles even on tank cleaning day! The new tank setup is soooo sharp. (Melissa, Ushma, and Leticia… there are slugs in the tank, but all are hiding in the back).

Slug Lab 2018 – Summer Edition

Summer is here, so the Slug Lab is running full speed.

We’re lucky to be joined once again by a really talented and dedicated team of students.  Here’s most of us at a pizza party to inaugurate a summer of research.  

From far left we have

  • Kayla Hall, joining us from Amherst for the summer
  • Ushma Patel, who has graduated but will stay in the lab for the start of the summer (and then on to study biomedical illustration at UIC)
  • Athira Jacob, lab alum now studying for her MCAT
  • Derek Steck, lab alum who this summer will be in the UCLA summer research program this summer
  • Steven Farrell, who has graduated but is also sticking with the lab for part of the summer while prepping for the MCAT
  • Dr C-J and myself (end of the table)
  • Tanya Rosiles, new lab member
  • Everett Krause, new lab member
  • Leticia Perez, lab alum sticking around for part of the summer before heading to UofI for veterinary medicine
  • Melissa Nguyen, new lab member and post-bac student

And not yet in the photo but planning on joining when she returns from Ireland: Shannon Wilcox

I hope I don’t jinx anything when I say that we’re off to a great start, with a very successful round of behavioral experiments and RNA isolations.  Looking forward to another great slug lab summer.

 

Slug Lab Triumph! First place in the cSFN undergraduate poster competition for Leticia Perez and Ushma Patel

So pleased and proud to announce that Leticia Perez and Ushma Patel have won first place in the Chicago Society for Neuroscience undergraduate poster competition.   Congrats Leticia and Ushma on a great presentation on the work you’ve been doing in the slug lab on the transcriptional correlates of forgetting and savings memory.

Leticia and Ushma are following up their spectacular win with exciting post-graduation plans.  Leticia is enrolling at the University of Illinois School of Vetrinary Medicine (and had her choice of programs!).  Ushma is enrolling at UIC’s prestigious medical illustration MA program (and also had her choice of programs!).  Congrats to both on all the hard work they put into collecting data, analyzing results, and presenting their exciting research.

Want to know more about the research Leticia and Ushma presented?  See their paper in Learning and Memory here: (Perez, Patel, Rivota, Calin-Jageman, & Calin-Jageman, 2017)

Not to brag, but this is the 3rd time a DU student has placed in this competition in the past 10 years (Kristine Bonnic had a 3rd place win and Tim Lazicki had a first place win).  That means DU neuroscience students have earned 1/3 of all the awards given out for undergraduate research by the Chicago Society for Neuroscience–an organization that includes Northwestern, Loyola, University of Chicago, DePaul, Midwestern, Roosevelt, North Central, and more…. relative to our student body we’re punching way above our weight!

Perez, L., Patel, U., Rivota, M., Calin-Jageman, I., & Calin-Jageman, R. (2017). Savings memory is accompanied by transcriptional changes that persist beyond the decay of recall. Learning & Memory (Cold Spring Harbor, N.Y.), 25(1), 45–48. [PubMed]

Memories fade..but something remains

Most long-term memories are ‘forgotten’–meaning that it becomes harder and harder to recall the memory.  Psychologists have long known, though, that forgetting is complex, and that fragments of a memory can remain.  For example, even after a memory seems forgotten it can be easier to re-learn the same material, something called ‘savings memory’.  That suggests that there is at least some fragment of a memory that persists in the brain even after it seems forgotten…but what?

Today our lab has published a paper shedding a bit of light on this long-standing mystery (Perez, Patel, Rivota, Calin-Jageman, & Calin-Jageman, 2017).  We tracked a sensitization memory in our beloved sea slugs.  As expected, memories faded–within a week animals had no recall of the prior sensitization.  Even more exciting, we found similar fragments of memory at the molecular level–there was a small set of genes very strongly regulated by the original training even though recall had fully decayed.

Why?  Do these persistent transcriptional changes help keep a remnant of the memory going?  Or are they actually doing the work of fully erasing the memory?  Or do they serve some other function entirely (or no function at all)?  These are some of the exciting questions we now get to investigate.  But for now, we have these fascinating foothold into exploring what, exactly, forgetting is all about in the brain.

As usual, we are enormously proud of the undergraduate students who helped make this research possible: Leticia Perez, Ushma Patel, and Marissa Rivota. Ushma, who wants to do science illustration, is making an incredible piece of artwork representing these findings.  A draft is shown above.  She submitted it for the cover of the journal, but sadly they journal selected a different image (boo!).  Still, a very exciting and proud day for the slug lab!

Perez, L., Patel, U., Rivota, M., Calin-Jageman, I. E., & Calin-Jageman, R. J. (2017). Savings memory is accompanied by transcriptional changes that persist beyond the decay of recall. Learning & Memory, 25(1), 45–48. doi: 10.1101/lm.046250117