Dr. Dave Pittman, professor of psychology at Wofford College, has seen more rats lately than most people see in a lifetime. But it has been worth it…Pittman and the Wofford students who have worked under him have been published because of their work with the ubiquitous rodents.
Their research, which centers on Pittman’s own longtime research focusing on behavioral responses to dietary fats, was conducted in the summer of 2006 as part of the first year of Wofford’s Community of Scholars program.
“It was a very long experiment,” said Pittman, whose project has involved students from several classes. “It took us six weeks of collecting data, 10 hours a day, every day of the week. Rats don’t take the weekend off.”
Their findings were deemed important enough that they recently made the Chemical Senses Journal, the premier scientific journal for taste and olfactory research. It was accepted in February and was published in the print journal in June. The findings can be found on Pittman’s website at http://BenzoTaste.com.
The project started for Pittman as a collaboration with one of his colleagues, Tim Gilbertson of Utah State University. Gilbertson bred two strains of rats – obese prone and obese resistant – and measured the response of the taste buds from each group when given fatty acids, the chemicals in dietary fat.
The implication is exciting. If the one strain of rats is overeating, what is the reason? Is it because the obese rats taste things in a different way? If it’s more palatable to them, they may recognize dietary fats differently than their obese resistant counterparts.
“Where we came into play was with behavioral testing,” said Pittman. “I approached Tim about testing the rats’ behavioral responses. This was done to complement the cellular work that he had done. He took the cells out of these rats’ tongues and measured their responses. We wanted to say, ‘Okay, given what you’ve found, can we show behavioral differences between these two strains? He provided the animals, and we did the behavior work.’”
Pittman and his students rolled up their sleeves and got to work.
“What we did was use condition taste aversion,” he said. “We would give the rats linoleic acid, which is one of the most prominent fatty acids. It’s found in corn oil. We gave them a very dilute concentration of that and then followed that with a controlled injection of saline, which did nothing to the animal, and then in the experimental group an injection of lithium chloride, which causes them gastric distress.
“The rats form a very strong conditioned response to what they have eaten if they can taste it. This was a way to measure whether the rats could taste the fatty acid or not. We had previously shown that they can, but what we were interested in was whether the obese prone and obese resistant rats have different abilities to taste it.
“We conditioned the two groups and then tested them using 15-second trials. We wanted to be able to say that any change in their behavior was because of the taste. They were responding to what was happening in their mouths.
“We tested progressively smaller amounts. We measured their detection threshold. How low could we go in terms of lessening the amount with the rats still able to taste it? What we saw is that there were different detection thresholds for the two strains of rats. The obese prone rats formed stronger aversions and avoided the fatty acids in lower amounts than the obese resistant rats.
“It was a pretty important finding, I think,” said Pittman. “The thing I liked is that we were able to provide behavioral evidence that supports the molecular/cellular evidence shown by Tim.
“It’s what the big boys do at big universities. Here we are at Wofford running in the same race with them. In those terms I think it’s a big deal. For Wofford students to have the opportunity to publish an article is great.”
The three original students in the project -- Cameron Corbin (Spartanburg, SC), Megan Crowley (Tega Cay, SC) and Kimberly Smith (Newberry, SC) – are all continuing their academics successfully. Corbin is finishing her masters in occupational therapy at the Medical University of South Carolina in Charleston. Smith graduated from Wofford this spring and plans to pursue a Ph.D in neuroscience a year from now. Crowley, meanwhile, has been accepted into a behavioral neuroscience Ph.D program at Tulane University.
“I definitely think that working in the lab and getting these publications helped these students immensely,” said Pittman. “Getting into two peer review publications is pretty unheard of for undergraduates, even those who work in labs at major universities. It helps not just because of the proof that comes with being published, but because of the knowledge and skillset gained. It’s a huge asset to our students going into graduate school. That’s what professors and graduate programs are looking for.”
The success of Pittman’s project is one more feather in the cap of the Community of Scholars program, which has continued to produce fine academic work this summer.