An Electric Connection Dr. Vielka Salazar

Since receiving her tenure-track appointment in 2010, Dr. Vielka Salazar, Associate Professor of Biology, has established the Behavioral NeuroEndocrinology Lab at Cape Breton University. Dr. Salazar’s work has earned her an NSERC Discovery Development Grant valued at $30,000, for her research project Neuroendocrine Regulation and Molecular Mechanisms Underlying Socially-Driven Communication Plasticity.

Dr. Salazar’s research expands upon the understanding of how chemicals such as hormones, target the brain and other body tissues to modify an animal’s behavioural response. More specifically, her lab studies the bidirectional relationship between the brain and hormones and the regulation of social behaviours.

“Previous work has shown that changes in the chemistry of certain brain areas and the release of certain hormones are important in regulating social behaviours,” says Dr. Salazar. “We also know that social experiences send feedback to modify these circuits and hormones. What is not fully understood yet, is the neuroendocrine mechanisms at the level of cells and genes underlying this bidirectional connection.”

One way to try to better understand this connection is to study these mechanisms in a “champion” representative organism. This organism displays a social behaviour that is easy to measure and interpret and is regulated by the same or similar neuroendocrine substrates as seen in other vertebrates, including humans.

The “champion” organisms in Dr. Salazar’s lab are electric fish from South America. These electric fish, also known as gymnotiform fish, have a unique communication system based on a weak electrical signal that is emitted throughout their life. Because these electric signals are generated by a well-mapped brain network, they also act as a public nervous system, broadcasting information about neural activity during social interaction. 

Dr. Salazar’s research, in conjunction with the research of her colleagues, has shown that the electric signals are used to determine the sex and social status of other fish and to make decisions on who may be seen as a potential threat or mate. The electric signals change dynamically in response to changes in their social environment. Dr. Salazar can mimic or hinder these changes by injecting the fish with chemicals that activate or inhibit the action of hormones such as serotonin, androgens and melanocortins. 

Currently, Dr. Salazar is working on mapping the molecular and cellular mechanisms that are regulated by serotonin, androgens and melanocortins. This research will lead to a better understanding of how these hormones change the electric signals in the fish and how the exchange of this electric information during social interactions then modifies the underlying hormone pathways.

“These NSERC DDG funded-projects will provide excellent training opportunities to CBU undergraduate students in fairly structured, highly competitive lab techniques used in the fields of neurobiology, molecular biology, and endocrinology.” says Dr. Salazar. “Students in my lab will also learn valuable skills on laboratory safety, bench etiquette, animal care, scientific ethics and data management.” CBU’s emphasis on undergraduate education with small class sizes and Dr. Salazar’s direct research mentorship approach gives her student research assistants a graduate student-level set of skills.