Hennessy Lab

Laboratory of Developmental Psychobiology and Stress

Below is a brief description on the basic and applied research we (Drs. Michael Hennessy, Patricia Schiml and their students and colleagues) conduct in our laboratory. For more details, please sample publications below or click on the publications tab in the right hand portion of this page.

Basic Studies

Who we are and how we develop are determined largely by the challenges we face and the resources we have to meet those challenges. Many of these challenges and resources are social in nature. Our companions can “buffer” the impact of environmental challenges, or “stressors”, and the loss of close companions can be a severe stressor itself. Our laboratory is focused on understanding the mechanisms underlying these effects, and how they shape behavioral and biological development.

In a natural environment, the social stressors an animal faces in early life can help prepare it for the challenges it is likely to encounter at older ages. But, early stress can also have negative, even devastating, consequences. In humans, early social stressors such as abuse, neglect, and separation from the mother have been linked to a greater propensity to develop psychopathology such as major depression in adolescence and adulthood. These effects appear to involve complex interactions between the brain, hormones, and aspects of the immune system.

Although depression is a uniquely human condition, basic processes underlying depression and its development can be studied in animals. Much of our work focuses on guinea pigs. Although not closely related to humans, guinea pigs exhibit an intricate social system, with social interactions and their absence affecting many of the same behavioral, neural, hormonal, and immune processes as in humans. In collaboration with colleagues at the California National Primate Research Center, we also test how well our results extend to nonhuman primates. The following papers provide some examples of our basic research.

Applied Studies

In our applied work, we are using principles derived from our and other’s basic research to find ways to reduce neuroendocrine and behavioral stress responses of dogs confined in animal shelters. One goal is to improve the welfare of these dogs. Even in well-run, modern animal shelters, dogs are confronted with an array of psychological stressors known to elevate stress hormone levels. Therefore, with the help of local shelters, we are studying ways that interventions might moderate hormonal and behavioral responses to stress. A second goal is to improve adoption success. Dogs adopted from shelters often exhibit behavioral problems such as “separation anxiety”. Behavior problems frequently result in dogs being returned to the shelter. We hypothesize that many of these problems stem from stressful experiences inherent in confinement. We, therefore, hope to improve adoption success by reducing the stressfulness of the shelter for dogs that find themselves there. The following papers are examples of this work.

Student Assistants

Student assistants in the lab are typically undergraduate psychology (behavioral neuroscience concentration) or biology majors, or are graduate students in one of the following: