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Sex and psychotropics

“I rarely have trouble recruiting stu- dents into my lab,” quips Hassan López, a Skidmore psychology professor. No wonder: his lab exposes rats to cannabi- noids (similar to THC found in marijua- na) and measures their sexual responses. Really. He studies the neuronal remodel- ing that occurs in the critical years of adolescence, and how drug use might affect reproductive and social behavior thereafter. “We’re looking at


detrimental effects of cannabinoids,” López says. “We subject young rats to a daily regimen of a synthetic cannabi- noid, because we’re interested in repli- cating teenage use of marijuana during this period when their brain is undergo- ing significant development. We’re try- ing to determine whether it has perma- nent, long-term effects on their emo- tional behavior or mental health.” Developmental neuroscience has been changing its focus from neonatal development to adolescent brain devel- opment, and López is right in step with this shift. “There’s a lot of research com- ing out now that indicates a likely possi- bility that heavy early use of cannabi- noids can increase the likelihood of de- veloping schizophrenia and certain other mental illnesses,” he says. It has to do with the ability of cannabinoids to alter how the brain grows. One example he offers: the drugs can actually change the orientations of neurons. He explains, “Neurons send out projections called axons that serve as connections, like wiring, between parts of the brain, and cannabinoids can alter the course of those trajecto- ries, so you get a miswired brain.” Currently, López and his students are focusing on neurons in the brain’s mesolimbic dopamine path-

way, also called the motivation pathway. Trained in pharmacology, López is also interested in social and sexual be- havior, and their intersection is what drives his main research agenda. Along with experimenting on rodents, he now uses human subjects in about half his work. His human studies do not use any controlled sub- stances but do in- volve sexual stim- uli, such as studies of female hormon- al responses to

emotional triggers. In a novel use of The Notebook and its matinee idol Ryan Gosling, Lopez has created a pas- tiche of clips from the movie that he’s nick- named his “attractive- man video.” For most of his female subjects, simple saliva-chem- istry tests reveal ele- vated levels of

testosterone and cor- tisol within 20 minutes of seeing the video. “We’re seeing a clear hor- monal response,” he says, “but what is it signaling? What is

its function? Does it provide energy or sexual motivation?”

Whether presenting questions or an- swers, Lopez is known for sharing the research spotlight, even pushing his stu- dents to the front of stage. Each year he takes a few students to the Society for Neuroscience conference, where they present a poster summary of their re- search. “I have the students be the pri- mary presenters,” he says. “Not many undergrads are presenting posters, so it’s a rare opportunity for them to learn about science as a profession and make important connections as they look to- ward grad school.”

When a project produces strong re- sults, López also encourages stu- dents to submit it for publication to a major peer-reviewed jour- nal such as Pharmacology, Bio- chemistry and Behavior or Hor- mones and Behavior. “We write it up together, but I have my students be listed as first author,” he says, adding that so far “we’ve had six or seven articles with stu- dent authors, so it’s been pretty successful.” —Jon Wurtmann ’78



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