By Claire Moncla
The Perfect Major: Studying science in college was not a hard decision for Katie Johns ’10, a Houston resident. “I’ve always liked learning about how things work, especially the human body,” she said. Johns said she picked neuroscience because it combined two other sciences she likes: psychology and biology. “Neuroscience combines the two [psychology and biology] to study the nervous system and determine the cellular mechanisms behind human behavior,” Johns said. “I like to understand why people do what they do, so neuroscience was the perfect major for me.”
Award Winner: Along with Rachel Zamzow ’10, Johns was the winner of an award for outstanding research in neuroscience last semester. And like Zamzow, Johns took on a large-scale project. For her senior project, Johns joined psychology graduate student Alex Grizzell’s research on impulsivity. “We investigated a possible brain mechanism behind impulsive behavior in rats,” she said. Johns used a rat to understand similar brain behavior in humans. “An animal model is necessary because currently, no other models can mimic the complex interactions that occur in the brain during emotional behaviors like impulsivity,” she explained.
Importance: Impulsivity is a significant behavior to study because it is a core component of several human psychiatric disorders. Johns listed drug addiction, impulsive aggression, bipolar disorder, and ADHD as some of the disorders that contain impulsivity. “A better understanding of the brain mechanisms involved could lead to better clinical treatments for these disorders,” she said.
Blast from the Past: Johns and Grizzell built their project on past research. Johns said that previous studies have shown that low levels of a neurotransmitter called serotonin are associated with many types of impulsive behavior. Now that they had a possible cause for impulsive behavior, they needed to figure out exactly what brain areas are involved.
The Facts: Seizures are seen when neurons in the brain are hyperexcitable or firing too easily and too frequently. John and Grizzell’s idea was that impulsive behavior was a result of hyperexcitable neurons below the level required to see seizures. So they developed two hypotheses to test in rats, the first involving low serotonin levels and the second involving the administration of an anticonvulsant used to counter seizures.
The Results: “The results of the study didn’t support the first hypothesis, but it did show the trends that we expected for the second hypothesis,” Johns said. “Our results suggest that patients with impulse control problems may benefit from treatment with phenytoin or other antiepileptic drugs.”
Extracurricular: Johns’ spectrum of interest is greater than science and research; she described herself as more than your classic nerd. “I think of myself as a nerdy jock,” specified Johns, who enjoys playing basketball. She was also a part of the Baylor Neuroscience Society and Nu Rho Psi, the neuroscience honor society. Both involve discussion and presentation on hot topics and current research in neuroscience. “Both organizations also work together on service projects like Steppin’ Out and volunteer at a local Alzheimer’s care center,” Johns said.
Making a Difference: Johns said she wanted to conduct research on impulsivity because she wanted to make a difference. Now that her Baylor research days are over, she wants to continue making a difference in higher education. In August, Johns will begin medical school at the University of Texas at Houston studying clinical science and neurology.