Investigating human behavior with non-human subjects
Mark Dixon, behavioral psychologist, professor and coordinator of the behavioral analysis and therapy program, has established two non-human research and animal learning laboratories. Affiliated with the COEHS Rehabilitation Institute and operated by doctoral students, the laboratories utilize the study of cockroachesand lobsters to investigate how animals learn. Jacob Daar oversees the cockroach lab while Mary Enoch directs the crustacean lab.
Undergraduate and graduate students in the Rehabilitation Institute’s behavior analysis and therapy classes began exploring the use of cockroaches and lobsters as animal models for human behavior. These little invertebrates allow the students to “practice” conditioning and learning approaches similar to practices they will eventually use with patients including the elderly, disabled, or children with autism. Students are learning how to teach skills, deal with behavioral abnormalities and gather very precise data. More than 100 graduate students, either at the actual labs or using Skype for remote collaboration and testing observation, have participated in research through the programs.
The vision of Dixon’s undertaking is “from lab to life,” a concept that meshes well with the National Institute of Health’s priority of translational research. It is hands-on learning that gives students valuable experience while having impact on research and the community.
A PBS special on compulsive gambling will feature the lobster research. A collaborative effort with the Center for Fisheries, Aquaculture and Aquatic Science is in the development stages and further research funding will be pursued as the teaching mission is solidified.