Stafford: Witt students research consequences of food insecurity

Sure, food insecurity leads to hunger.

But anxiety and depression might also be consequences.

And the combination could interfere with the learning and decision-making of everyday life.

Less than two miles from a food bank that served 50,000 people last year, a group of juniors and seniors at Wittenberg University are taking a look at those issues.

Advised by Gwynne Davis, a visiting professor of psychology, the 400-level Psychological Research Seminar Course is conducting an experiment that will measure how food unpredictability influences the behavior of mice.

Mice aren’t people, of course. But Davis said enough experiments have been done with C57BL/6J mice and later on people to establish that the underlying biological drivers of mouse and human behavior are quite similar.

The tests themselves are well established, and Davis is familiar with them through graduate level research on attention deficit disorder. Her task in all this is to guide her students through the maze involved in doing a research project from start to finish.

Students started by searching professional journals for articles about the effects of food unpredictability. Each then designed an experiment and gave an “elevator pitch” for the class to consider. Wherever they land in their work lives, communication will be critical.

Caroline Cairns and Maria Rodriguez, a graduate of Tecumseh High School, tied for the best presentations and subsequently received $250 grants from the Student Development Board to buy materials for the experiment.

Rodriguez disclosed her back-up plan had she not received the grant with a smile: “I would have relied on the Psychology Department.”

Davis said the similarities between Cairns’ and Rodriguez’s methods and approaches made it easy to “smoosh together” the proposals into the experiment the class is carrying out.

Four tests are involved.

One measures whether mice in the experimental group are more hesitant to explore their surroundings than the control group.

Mice have “this balance between exploratory behavior (that helps them find food) and trying to stay safe.” Davis said. In mice that “hide in the enclosed arm for longer periods of time,” she said, “we expect to see increased anxiety.”

A second experiment will test differences in mice’s preference for plain water or sugar water. “A major symptom or behavior that can be observed in depression is loss in the ability to enjoy or find pleasure in tasks or experiences that used to be enjoyable,” Davis said.

The research also includes two memory tests. One involves a difference in whether the mice with unpredictable access to food take longer to learn where food is regularly available in a T-shaped tunnel. The other measures how long it takes the mice to learn to find an exit platform in a water maze, which requires use of both spatial and working memory.

The students are clearly interested in the project.

Brenden Nicholas, a junior and son of Jamaican immigrants, chose a double major in biochemistry and psychology because of his interest in body chemistry and behavior. He finds examples that apply across species particularly intriguing.

Hannah Marcin’s hoped-for career sits at the very intersection of biology and psychology.

“I want to be a genetic counsellor.”

But like the other students, she has a broader interest.

“The food insecurity and memory (interaction) would be interesting to see, because memory impacts us so much, especially kids going to school.”

Rodriguez, who while at Tecumseh High School volunteered with a food distribution program, hopes this kind of research will “make it known” that widespread food insecurity “is causing anxiety and depression.”

When the students are done with their experiments, they will analyze the results, go back into the professional literature for a look, then write a formal paper in the style expected by a professional journal.

After all, Davis’ assignment is to teach them how researchers smoosh things together.

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