Connecticut College Magazine · Spring 2008


Unraveling the brain´s secrets: Ruth Grahn, associate professor of psychology, makes the connection between neurons and knitting.

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Five Questions for Associate Professor of Psychology Ruth Grahn

Five Questions for Associate Professor of Psychology Ruth Grahn
Associate Professor Ruth Grahn

Unraveling the brain´s secrets: Ruth Grahn, associate professor of psychology, makes the connection between neurons and knitting.

by Mary Howard

She is a biopsychologist, a champion of student-faculty collaborative research and director of Connecticut College´s Behavioral Neuroscience Program. Associate Professor of Psychology Ruth Grahn is also a popular teacher.

“It is her passion for learning and education that makes her a truly great professor, and it is her warmth and genuine affection for others that make her a wonderful person to be around,” says Elyse Goveia ´08, who is completing her honors thesis with Grahn. An avid knitter and spinner and a founding member of the Camel Knitters Guild, Grahn teaches her Behavioral Neuroscience students to knit, and in the process fosters their knowledge of brain functioning.

“She creates a comfortable academic environment that lets me take risks and make mistakes without worrying about the results,” says Caitlin Baptiste ´08, who has conducted research with Grahn for the past two years.

CC: Connecticut College Magazine recently caught up with Grahn
to ask her about research, teaching and, of course, knitting.

One. What led you to focus your research on anxiety disorders
and how environmental stressors produce anxious behavior?

Once I abandoned the notion of going to medical school, I was free to
focus on research and found ample opportunities as an undergraduate
at Mt. Holyoke. My early research interests were focused on the
biological basis of learning, specifically the neural mechanisms
of classical and operant conditioning. This led me
to a graduate program in Colorado, working with one
of the founders of the concept of learned helplessness,
Steven Maier. Most people view learned helplessness
as a model of depression, but Maier and I were
interested in the neural mechanisms involved when
an aversive, uncontrollable event leads to anxiety
and interferes with learning. We did a series of studies that
showed how the serotonin system is altered and how anxiety
emerges as a result of this type of stress. Most researchers
were expecting the serotonin system to be impaired by
stressful events, but we showed that it is actually stimulated.

Two. What research projects are you working
on now?

My students and I continue to focus on how stress affects
anxiety, but with a concentration on the impact of naturalistic
stressors. The neural mechanisms that allow a rat to
respond appropriately to a cat are likely similar to the ones
that allow a human to respond appropriately to a mugger, a
car accident or a bothersome roommate. We are still trying to
understand how defensive and coping behaviors are modulated
by the serotonin system. In one study Heather Stanish ´08
examined the effect of exercise on spatial learning. Kristin
Mulrane MA ´08 is studying how an enriched living environment
affects a rat´s defensive responses to cat odor.
We are also examining the neural basis of obsessivecompulsive
disorder, using animal models. These projects
developed from presentations that students gave in
Psychopharmacology. It was then that I learned how much
serotonin was involved in OCD. Caitlin Baptiste ´08 is
conducting studies in this area for her honors thesis.

Three. How does collaboration with students inform
your research?

All of the research I do is with students, and this arrangement
often brings me down unexpected paths. Take, for
example, the honors project of Elyse Goveia ´08. She is
examining the effect of nicotine on spatial memory, and
her project evolved into a very big deal, leading us to adopt
all kinds of new research techniques and approaches. We
are even using a different type of rat! While it´s been more
work than I anticipated (more than Elyse ever imagined),
the benefits have been extensive. The new research approaches
have expanded our options for future projects,
and the results from the experiment are very exciting.
We plan to present the work at a few conferences, and it´s
going to be a fun paper to write. This is the collaborative
research approach that I enjoyed as a student and that gets
me excited about my job now.

Four. Why do you have the students in your
Behavioral Neuroscience course learn to knit?

Students don´t expect to encounter knitting on the first day
of a college class, so I like to surprise them with a lesson. It
gets discussion started on all kinds of neuroscience topics.
One that always comes up is memory. There is the occasional
student who is an experienced knitter, so we talk
about how the cerebellum has the capacity to store procedure
memories and motor programs. We make the distinction
between this procedural type of memory and declarative
memory by asking the veteran knitter to describe when
she learned to knit (still waiting to encounter a male knitter
in this class) and who taught her. Then I explain how the
cortex and hippocampus are necessary for storage and recall
of that type of memory.

When we cover the motor system, traditionally the least
exciting topic in the course, we relate the function of each
motor area of the brain to the act of knitting. For example,
the fingers need to convey lots of information about the position
of the yarn and needles and the muscles of the fingers
need to be capable of very fine, controlled movement. We
relate this to how parts of the body are represented in the
cortex and how the hands and face take up most of the cortical
space devoted to motor and sensory processing, leaving
very little brain space for less important body parts. Then
we talk about plasticity and how the cortical space allotted
to a body part can change with experience. Those students
who keep knitting can imagine their motor cortex changing
as their skill improves.

Knitting in Behavioral Neuroscience has turned out to
be a very useful and fun way to begin the semester.

Five. What made you choose Connecticut College?

My own undergraduate experience at a selective, small
liberal arts college led me to view this environment as one
that suited me best, and graduate work at a large research
university only reinforced that view. Now that I´ve been here
for almost 10 years, I see that the distinction between a place
like CC and a large university extends beyond class size and
the personal nature of faculty-student interactions to include
participation in college governance and residential life. It is
surprising to me how much I enjoy being on the Priorities,
Planning & Budget Committee. And my most favorite thing
about being at the College is having the opportunity to direct
our neuroscience program. We´ve grown from only seven
majors in 1999 to 25 to 35 students majoring in Behavioral
Neuroscience each year. This sustained interest in neuroscience
has allowed us to add a new faculty member to the
program, Joe Schroeder, visiting assistant professor of neuroscience.
With funding opportunities designed especially for
undergraduate institutions, it has been possible to do a lot of
research as well. Neuroscience is a mainstream topic, and it´s
gratifying to know that we have the chance to prepare students
to explore this field beyond the undergraduate level.

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