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Psychology's Veenema Earns NSF CAREER Award

Asst. Prof. Alexa Veenema (Psychology) Photo by Lee Pellegrini

By Sean Smith | Chronicle Editor

Published: Sept. 30, 2013

Assistant Professor of Psychology Alexa Veenema, a researcher on the neural basis of social behavior, has earned a prestigious five-year National Science Foundation Faculty Early Career Development Award.

NSF’s top honor for junior faculty, the CAREER Award recognizes “innovative research at the frontiers of science and technology,” according to the foundation, and supports the early career-development activities of teacher-scholars “who most effectively integrate research and education within the context of the mission of their organization.”

“I am very happy to receive this acknowledgement for my past work, and support for my future projects,” said Veenema, now in her fourth year on the BC faculty. “Peer recognition is so important to anyone at this stage of his or her career, and an award like this will definitely help me to develop as a researcher.”

Veenema studies normal and abnormal social behavior – especially during early development – and its possible implications for autism, borderline or antisocial personality disorders and schizophrenia. She is particularly interested in how trauma, deprivation or other factors affect chemicals that help the brain to regulate social behavior. 

Her lab’s current work focuses on the role of the neuropeptide arginine-vasopressin (AVP) in the regulation process, specifically in social play and social novelty-preference, among juvenile rats — and to what extent gender and social context play a part.

“We know that AVP and its main receptor, the V1A receptor (V1aR), are critical to regulating diverse behaviors in adulthood, but we don’t know how this system functions in regulating juvenile social behavior,” she said. “Social play is vital for every animal — as it is for humans — in developing social, emotional and cognitive skills, so that seemed to us a key facet to explore.

“AVP also is integral to regulating what is called social novelty-preference: A rat, given a situation where it encounters both a ‘new’ or novel rat and a familiar rat in its environment, will show preference for interacting with the former. This is an important adaptive social behavior in group-living individuals.”

Veenema and her team found that blocking the V1aR of juvenile rats enhanced social play among males but reduced it among females, whereas social-novelty preference for both sexes declined.

“So the question now becomes: What is the nature of the circuitry in the brain where this regulation occurs,” she said, “and why is it apparently different for males and females in social play, but not in social-novelty preference?”

Veenema said that this research, while basic, will help in understanding how neural circuits in the brain uniquely regulate social behavior depending on gender and social context — which may shed light on the regulation of human social behavior and could eventually lead to applications in education or other fields.

“Rats’ brain structures have certain, very significant functional similarities with those of humans,” she said. “Therefore, I believe this work will have a broad impact in improving our understanding of neuroscience, particularly in that of children.”

Veenema noted her project includes an education plan designed to expose students, at Boston College and elsewhere, and the public to behavioral neuroscience research.

“BC is committed to giving undergraduates opportunities to experience research in an engaged, hands-on way,” said Veenema, who had seven students working with her over the summer supported in part through the University’s Undergraduate Research Fellows Program. “With the CAREER Award, I hope to broaden the outreach by offering summer research internships for underrepresented minorities and for students from non-research colleges as well as area high schools.”

Her project also involves developing a research-based course, promoting parent participation in their children’s research with a “bring-your-parent-to-the-lab day,” and sharing research findings through public lectures and via the lab website.

Besides Veenema, who in 2011 earned a Young Investigator Award from the Brain and Behavior Research Foundation, CAREER Award winners from BC have included Assistant Professor of Psychology Sara Cordes, Assistant Professor of Mathematics Elisenda Grigsby and Adjunct Assistant Professor of Chemistry Kian Tan.