Understanding how brains become organized into specialized regions (touch, motor, vision, etc.) is essential to understanding how brains develop, as well as how they might be impacted and potentially repaired following developmental disorders or injuries. An effective strategy for acquiring a better understanding of brain organization involves examining mammals that possess unique body structures and behaviors. The goal of these studies is to characterize the organization and function of brain regions in the nine-banded armadillo (Dasypus novemcinctus), utilizing anatomical and electrophysiological recording methods. This project will reveal how mammalian nervous systems process specialized sensory inputs. Armadillos are covered in bony plates and are highly dependent upon their sense of hearing. These traits are expected to impact the brain regions responsible for touch, movement and hearing; understanding this relationship will shed light on analogous systems in other mammals such as humans. In addition to possessing sensory specializations, armadillos also uniquely give birth to identical quadruplets (basically clones), setting the stage for related neurodevelopmental studies with identical littermates for comparison, an ideal experimental situation unattainable with any other mammalian developmental model.
These studies will take place at the University of Central Arkansas and involve training undergraduate and master's students, many of whom are first generation college students, in cutting edge neurobiology research methods. Participating students will engage in the scientific process in a comprehensive hands-on manner, and gain research experience that will prepare them to pursue careers in neurobiology or other related STEM fields. The intense interest this work has generated in the pilot stages indicates that the incorporated educational outreach programs will help address a serious need for science education, particularly among Arkansas grade school students, where approximately 40% of those assessed perform below basic achievement levels (2011 Nation's Report Card, National Assessment of Educational Programs, U.S. Department of Education).