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Senior Neuroscience Majors Presented at National Conference

Posted on Friday, December 2, 2011

Three Westminster College senior neuroscience majors presented posters on their research at the Society for Neuroscience conference Nov. 12-15 in Washington, D.C.

Emily Pitzer, Kristina Scanlan, and Tiffany Wilkins were accompanied by Dr. Robin McGovern, Westminster assistant professor of psychology and adviser for their research.

Pitzer's project, "Investigation on Decision-Making: Analysis of Clozapine on Rational Choices," was co-advised by Dr. Alan Gittis, Westminster professor of psychology emeritus.  Pitzer studied the effects of clozapine, the typical medication prescribed to treat schizophrenia, on cognition.

Specifically, she investigated the hypothesis that clozapine would be ineffective in improving pharmacologically-produced cognitive deficits.  She found that, during a decision-making task, rats injected with clozapine were not able to correct the cognitive deficit she produced with a pharmacological agent.

"The conference opened my eyes to the vast amount of research topics within the field," Pitzer said.  "I met many people from Nobel Prize winners to graduate students to undergraduate students like me who are all so passionate about neuroscience research.  I hope to pursue a career in research, so hearing about all the work that goes into it was incredibly helpful."

Pitzer is a daughter of John and Pattie Pitzer of Cortland, Ohio, and a graduate of Mathews High School.

Scanlan's research, "The Role of Oxytocin, Vasopressin, and D-cycloserine in Remediating Social Behavior in Rats with Amygdala Lesions," was co-advised by Gittis.  Scanlan investigated potential treatments for the social deficits of autism spectrum disorders and whether the gender of the subject affected the animal's response to treatment.

The research determined the antibiotic D-cycloserine had the most significant effect on the subjects and that gender did play a role in treatment efficacy.

"For many of us, communicating comes naturally," Scanlan said.  "However, for an individual with an autism spectrum disorder, knowing how to appropriately interact with others is a challenge, at best.  By researching the possible pharmaceutical treatments for the social deficits found in autism, the quality of life for these individuals can be improved."

Scanlan is a daughter of Roger and Michele Scanlan of Ebensburg and a graduate of Central Cambria High School.

Wilkins' project, "Clozapine Attenuates Methylphenidate-Induced Conditioned Place Preference," studied the abuse potential of Ritalin and how clozapine decreases that potential.

As ADHD (attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder) diagnoses increase, the number of patients becoming addicted to Ritalin and abusing it also increases.  Wilkins' research explored whether clozapine taken with Ritalin would decrease the abuse potential without interfering with Ritalin's therapeutic effects.

"The conference was a valuable learning experience that will help me in future research and presentations," Wilkins said.  "I learned what others are doing on the subject I'm working on and got new ideas and methods for future research."

Wilkins is a daughter of Judith Hartman of New Castle and a graduate of Mohawk Area High School.

The students received travel/presentation grants from Westminster's Drinko Center for Excellence in Teaching and Learning to attend the conference.

The Drinko Center for Excellence in Teaching and Learning was created to enrich undergraduate education at Westminster through advancing world-class teaching as well as by participating in collaborations that address community and regional needs including strengthening K-12 education.  The Undergraduate Research Initiative provides funding for students to conduct research and to present their research at regional and national conferences.  Click here for more information about the Drinko Center and its programs.

Contact McGovern at (724) 946-7358 or email for additional information.

(L-r) Emily Pitzer, Kristina Scanlan, Dr. Robin McGovern, Tiffany Wilkins
Tiffany Wilkins (l), Nobel Prize winner Eric Kandel, Emily Pitzer