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An Organismal Approach to Behavioral Neuroscience.

Course Format: 2 hour seminar

Time and location: 1:30 to 3:30 PM, Monday in RKC115

Instructors: Wan-chun Liu, PhD, Jason Schwarz, Nicole Creanza

Course Summary
This course will examine behavioral neuroscience from a species- and research-based perspective. Model organisms have both limitations and strengths as research systems, and the anatomy, complexity, and behavior of these species have shaped the current state of knowledge on the structure and function of the nervous system. Each week, discussions will focus on a particular organism, exploring the studied behaviors and the contributions to neuroscience made in the species. In the process, the fundamentals of neuroscience will be discussed with an emphasis on the context in which they were discovered and the ways these discoveries shape future research. Readings from the primary literature will highlight the historical and current importance of the organism to our understanding of the brain and behavior. By scrutinizing the papers, students will become familiar with the complexities of experimental design and gain experience in critically analyzing scientific research.

The goal of this course is to explore the history and future of neuroscience with a focus on the role of the model organisms used. The primary questions we wish to keep in mind are:
1. What are the strengths of this model organism that allow for novel discoveries and a redefinition of the field?
2. What are the weaknesses of this model organism? What sorts of questions cannot be addressed using it? The choice of model organism is fundamental to the type of questions that a researcher can ask, and neuroscience is unique in biology in the diversity of model organisms available to the researcher, making a thorough understanding of those organisms crucial to success in the field.


50% -
Attendance/Participation - Attendance is mandatory. The course will be run as a graduate-style seminar and a student will lead the discussion on one of the papers each week. All students will be required to submit by email one question per paper by midnight on the Sunday before class. Questions can be related to clarifications, criticisms, or experimental ideas that arise during reading the paper.
50% -
Research Paper/Presentation - A 10-page research proposal or review will be required. It is due by May 19th. Students will then give a 15 minute presentation on the subject of their paper during the last class. Details will be discussed at a later date. We will meet individually in early April to discuss topics.

Contact Information

Wan-chun Liu -
Nicole Creanza -
Jason Schwarz -

Office hours will be held from 12PM to 1PM on Mondays in RKC 209.


4 February: Humans
  • Initial attempts to understand the brain on an anatomical and cellular level
  • Visualizing the brain
Broca: Summary of 1861 Bulletin de la Société Anatomique: "Remarks on the seat of the faculty of articulated language, following an observation of aphemia (loss of speech)."
O'Driscoll and Leach 1868 BMJ: "‘No longer Gage’: an iron bar through the head."

11 February: Ethology

  • Understanding animals, behavioral ecology
  • Instinct, fixed action patterns, imprinting
  • Evolutionarily stable strategy
Tinbergen 1963 Zeitschrift fur Tierpsychologie: "On the aims and methods of ethology."
Emery and Clayton 2004 Science: "The mentality of crows: convergent evolution of intelligence in corvids and apes."

18 February: Introduction to neuroscience

  • Kandel readings
  • Explanation of cell types
  • Action potential, neurotransmitters
  • Group discussion of primary literature
Adrian and Bronk 1928 J. Physiology: "The discharge of impulses in motor nerve fibers (I)."

25 February: Squid

  • Neuronal biophysics
Hodgkin and Huxley 1952 J. Physiology: "Currents carried by sodium and potassium ions through the membrane of the giant axon of Loligo."

3 March: Aplysia

  • Neural basis of behavior
Kandel and Tauc 1965 J. Physiology: "Heterosynaptic facilitation in neurones of the abdominal ganglion of Aplysia depilans."

10 March: Drosophila

  • First genetic mutations producing behavioral phenotype
  • Functional imaging to find olfactory maps
Konopka and Benzer 1971 PNAS: "Clock mutants of Drosophila melanogaster."
Wang et al. 2003 Cell: "Two-photon calcium imaging reveals an odor-evoked map of activity in the fly brain."

17 March: C. elegans

  • Nervous system development
  • Single circuits regulating complex behaviors
Zhen and Jin 1999 Nature: "The liprin protein SYD-2 regulates the differentiation of presynaptic termini in C. elegans."
de Bono and Bargmann 1998 Cell: "Natural variation in a neuropeptide Y receptor homolog modifies social behavior and food response in C. elegans."

24 March: Fish Fish as an emerging vertebrate model system to study:

  • Nervous system development
  • Simple behavior
Muto et al. 2005 PNAS: "Forward genetic analysis of visual behavior in zebrafish."
Schlegel and Schuster 2008 Science: "Small circuits for large tasks: high-speed decision-making in archerfish."
Bleckmann and Schwartz 1982 J. Comparative Biology: "The functional significance of frequency modulation within a wave train for prey localization in the surface-feeding fish Aplocheilus lineatus."

7 April: Birds

  • Description of the neuroanatomy of the song control system
  • Complex behavior: vocal learning
  • Similarities between birdsong and human language
Marler and Tamura 1964 Science: "Culturally transmitted patterns of behavior in sparrows."
Mello, Vicario, and Clayton 1992 PNAS: "Song presentation induces gene expression in the songbird forebrain."

14 April: Birds 2 A visit to the Rockefeller University Field Research Center

  • Evidence for adult-born neurons, implications for brain damage
  • Exploring the boundaries of what can be learned
Goldman and Nottebohm 1983 PNAS: "Neuronal production, migration, and differentiation in a vocal control nucleus of the adult female canary brain."
Gardner, Naef, and Nottebohm 2005 Science: "Freedom and rules: the acquisition and reprogramming of a bird's learned song."

21 April: Rodents

  • Rodents as models of neurological disease
  • Inquiries into learning and memory
Weisstaub et al. 2005 Science: "Cortical 5-HT2A receptor signaling modulates anxiety-like behaviors in mice"
Wills et al. 2005 Science: "Attractor dynamics in the hippocampal representation of the local environment."

28 April: Monkeys

  • Visual cortex
  • Primate behavior
Tsao et al. 2006 Science: "A cortical region consisting entirely of face-selective cells."
Hauser 1992 PNAS: "Costs of deception: cheaters are punished in rhesus monkeys (Macaca mulatta)."

5 May: Wild species

  • The importance of fieldwork
  • Understanding the natural history of an organism
  • Using wild species in the lab
Kroodsma 2005 (book excerpt): "Why some species learn and others don't."
Young and Wang 2004 Nature Neuroscience: "The neurobiology of pair bonding."
Jensen, Moss, and Surlykke 2005 Journal of Experimental Biology: "Echolocating bats can use acoustic landmarks for spatial orientation."

12 May: Evolution of behavior

  • Altruism and kin selection; social behaviors; the effects of genetic relatedness on individual behavior and social dynamics; eusociality
  • Adaptation to unusual environments
Jarvis 1981 Science. "Eusociality in a mammal: cooperative breeding in naked mole rats"
Kimchi and Terkel 2002 Current Opnion in Neurobiology: "Seeing and not seeing."

19 May: Student Presentations and Conclusions