Using electric fish, biologist Carlson to study neuroplasticity and behavioral evolution

Bruce Carlson, professor of biology, was recently awarded $980,000 by the National Science Foundation to study neuronal plasticity and the evolvability of behavior. Carlson and his team are examining how changes in an animal’s behavior alters the sensory feedback the animal receives, in turn leading to modifications to the animal’s brain.

Electric fish generate electric pulses to communicate with other fish and sense their surroundings. (Photo: Tsunehiko Kohashi)

Mormyrid weakly electric fish, the team’s model organisms, offer unique insights into the role of activity-dependent plasticity in the complex evolution of behavior. Though the insights are unique, the mechanisms are not. Behavior in all animals, including humans, requires the successful interaction of key nervous system components, including sensory organs, muscles, and various neural pathways.

“We’re excited to learn whether neuroplasticity, which is the ability of neural circuits to change their wiring and physiology as a result of individual experience, may facilitate the evolution of behavior,” Carlson said. “The biggest impact in terms of scientific results will be linking the mechanisms that mediate developmental change in behavior within individuals to the mechanisms that mediate evolutionary change in behavior across generations.”

Washington University undergraduate students, graduate students, and postdocs working with Carlson will have opportunities to design and perform their own experiments as a component of this research. The project also involves multiple broader outreach components. Carlson is partnering with Harris-Stowe State University to establish a new pipeline for bringing underrepresented undergraduate students into biological research labs, and his team will expand ongoing outreach and education activities to teach K-12 students in the St. Louis region about hypothesis-driven science and the importance of brain plasticity in behavior.

“Electric fish are excellent tools for public outreach in neuroscience and behavior. As exotic animals, they attract a wide audience,” Carlson said. “Using electric fish to illustrate the concept of neuroplasticity and how personal experience can alter brain function provides neuroscientific support for encouraging a growth mindset among students and teachers.”