Included among the speakers presenting at this year’s symposium was Dr. Matthew Hall from the University of Calgary. Hall’s research has dealt with the relationship of chronic stress and changes in brain chemistry that affect mood and anxiety. It was noted that South Dakotans suffer from such emotional health problems at a rate significantly higher than the national average.

Hall’s message to the 75 scientists and students gathered for the symposium was that in his research, changes in the levels of a specific signaling molecule in the brain, known as endocannabinoids, influence stress-related behaviors in rodents. He said that when levels of these transmitters decreased, stress- and anxiety-related behaviors increased, whereas increasing endocannabinoid levels appeared to reduce stress and anxiety.

Hall also presented research showing there are natural variations in the genes that regulate endocannabinoid levels in the brain. This can explain why some people suffering from anxiety disorders like posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD), and others are resistant to developing symptoms after stressful events. Hall’s findings represent a potential avenue for treatment for people suffering from mental health disorders such as anxiety and PTSD. Based on research like Hall’s, drugs have recently been developed to alter endocannabinoid levels, and they are currently being assessed for safety.

The symposium brought together neuroscience and behavioral researchers at the university with other brain and behavior scientists from around the U.S. and Canada. Undergraduate and graduate students from the university played an active role in the symposium as part of the center’s goal to train the next generation of neurobehavioral scientists.

The Center for Brain and Behavior Research was established at the University of South Dakota in 2013, and the symposium has been held during each of the past three years. Goals of the center are to understand how the brain functions and to develop new therapies to treat neurological and behavioral disorders to benefit the people of South Dakota and beyond.

Center members consist of faculty and students from USD’s School of Medicine, School of Health Sciences, School of Education and the College of Arts & Sciences. High-level research, sponsored by the National Institutes of Health, the National Science Foundation and a grant from the Governor’s Office of Economic Development, takes place at the center.

Gina Forster, Ph.D., professor of basic biomedical sciences at the university, serves as director of the center. Forster said its interdisciplinary research is comprehensive. “We’re studying the brain from the molecule level all the way to human behavioral level,” she said. The type of research performed at the center translates into public benefits ranging from mental health to physical health, Forster said.

The symposium not only brought Dr. Hall to USD from Canada, it also attracted renowned scientists from Indiana University, Yale and Texas A&M universities.

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