Five Questions With: Kristen Scaplen

Kristin Scaplen is an assistant professor in Bryant University’s Department of Psychology who is conducting alcohol addiction research in part by studying the neural circuits of fruit flies. The flies share 75% of the genes that cause human diseases and assist researchers in various biological processes that affect human health. She spoke about her research at Bryant.

PBN: Why use fruit flies when doing research about alcohol addiction and human behavior?

SCAPLEN: Alcohol addiction is a debilitating disorder that manifests as problematic patterns of alcohol use. At the core of these behavioral manifestations is alcohol’s profound effect on the brain. Understanding how alcohol disrupts neural circuits to result in enduring preferences and persistent cravings is critical to developing effective treatments. The problem is the human brain is incredibly complex. With about 87 billion neurons and 100 trillion connections, this is an impossible task.

To our benefit, the fruit fly has a relatively simple and amenable nervous system and the connections that are important for learning are remarkably similar. Given that circuits function similarly, our goal is to understand how connections change at a small scale and use that to inform more-complex systems.

- Advertisement -

PBN: How do researchers at Bryant conduct these studies on the flies?

SCAPLEN: Our lab uses a variety of tools to target neurons of interest in the brain and manipulate or record/visualize their activity while animals behave to identify required circuits.

PBN: Have there been any surprising findings from the research you’ve conducted?

SCAPLEN: Generally, I am amazed at how similar their behaviors are, but I was excited to identify memory circuits important for learning and remembering alcohol-associated experiences and surprised to see they were distinct. It’s led to some exciting new questions.

PBN: How can the findings of your research be applied?

SCAPLEN: We often call alcohol addiction a chronic relapsing disorder because 40%-60% of individuals treated relapse within a year of treatment and long-term rates are between 20%-80% depending on severity. Insight into how alcohol modifies circuits in the brain is imperative to develop innovative treatment strategies that significantly improve outcomes and reduce the prolonged risk of relapse.

PBN: Bryant is known for its business-related programs more than its scientific research. How long has your lab been operating and how did it get established?

SCAPLEN: I started at Bryant University in 2020 and was fortunate to be awarded both the Rhode Island Foundation medical grant and the early-career development award from the Rhode Island IDeA Network of Biomedical Research Excellence. These funds, and the support from Bryant’s recently established Center for Health and Behavioral Sciences, were crucial to building and outfitting research space with state-of-the-art equipment for conducting research. More recently, Bryant established the School of Health and Behavioral Sciences to prepare students for successful careers in science, technology, engineering and math fields. It’s an exciting time to be at Bryant.

Officially my lab opened in 2021 and we’ve actively engaged over a dozen undergraduates in an innovative research program during the academic year and summer months. Bryant’s unique ability to integrate business, arts and sciences into its curriculum is one of the reasons why I joined.

Neuroscience is inherently interdisciplinary. Here at Bryant, many of the data science tools I use in the lab are tools used by my colleagues in the College of Business or College of Arts and Sciences, so there is more overlap than you might expect. Answering these complex questions about the brain and behavior requires creative but diverse minds working together.