Work takes flight with new idea on bird brains

Adela Talbot // Western News

Psychology graduate student Madeleine Brodbeck, a recipient of the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council Alexander Graham Bell Canada Graduate Scholarship, will be looking at the role of the hippocampus as it relates to memory in the brain of the brown-headed cowbird. She will be conducting research at Western’s Advanced Facility for Avian Research (AFAR).

Now that she’s here, Madeleine Brodbeck is ready to change gears.

Before coming to Western, Brodbeck’s research looked at the effect of video games on the player’s attention span. This was the subject of her undergraduate thesis at Algoma University in Sault Ste. Marie, Ont.

“I started out with psychology, and I was interested in it from the start. But I actually did my thesis on something different, on video game play and its relation to attentional scores. I found the more people played an action video game, the better they scored on attention. The more they played a puzzle game, the worse they did. It was really cool,” she said.

She has been recognized for her scholarship with both the Governor General’s Silver Medal and the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council Alexander Graham Bell Canada Graduate Scholarship.

The Silver Medal is awarded to the undergraduate student who achieves the highest academic standing upon graduation from a bachelor’s degree program. Brodbeck graduated from Algoma with a 93.6 per cent average. The Bell scholarship, valued at $17,500, supports high-calibre scholars engaged in a graduate program in the natural sciences or engineering.

When the time came to select a graduate program, Brodbeck wanted to focus on something entirely different. After researching her options, she picked Western because of its Advanced Facility for Avian Research (AFAR), a facility that would provide her the opportunity to examine the role of the hippocampus in birds, which has never been done before.

“I looked around, and looked at different professors and their work, and there are some really great scientists here. The program I am in is behavioural and cognitive neuroscience, and the work (researchers) do with birds at AFAR is really cool, and one of the reasons I came here,” explained Brodbeck, who will be working with Biology professor Scott MacDougall Shackleton and Psychology professor David Sherry, co-directors of AFAR, while pursuing her MA at Western.

Brodbeck’s main interest is the hippocampus, a region of the brain related to spatial memory. She plans to examine it in the brown-headed cowbird, a species classified a brood parasite, one that does not raise its young, but rather lays its eggs and pawns off the task onto other bird species. Cowbirds are not exposed to species-typical visual and auditory information like other birds, yet they are able to develop species-typical singing, social and breeding behaviors.

“In people, the hippocampus is actually deep in your brain; but in birds, it’s on top, which is interesting because we are actually going to be cooling the hippocampus,” Brodbeck said.

“This is something that Stephen Lomber does here – but he works with cats. He cools areas of the brain, which turns that area off. But you can turn it back on and it’s reversible damage. It hasn’t been done in birds yet,” she continued.

In looking at the hippocampus, Brodbeck plans to examine how the hippocampus affects the memory process.

“I’m interested in different phases of memory. You can acquire a memory, you can store a memory and you can retrieve a memory. And I want to see the hippocampus’ role in this. How I’m going to do that? I’m still figuring it out,” she said.

“It’s never been done in birds before – we have to build everything, figure out how to make everything work.”

A bird’s brain, anatomically speaking, is proportionally large when compared to its head size, Brodbeck noted, and studying a bird’s brain can have a number of implications.

“You can study memory in a lot of ways. A lot of people don’t realize we use animals for that. I’m using birds as a way to study memory, as a model to study memory. But mostly, for now, it’s to figure out the hippocampus’ role. It’s been pretty fun and I’m really enjoying it so far,” she added. “Being a scientist is a cool thing because you get to learn new things on your own.”