The Collegian
Thursday, August 18, 2022

Students research topics related to motherhood

Collegian Reporter

Psychology professor Craig Kinsley has been researching maternal behavior for more than 20 years and has studied the relationship between intelligence and pregnancy.

"I've been trying to understand the female brain since puberty," he said. "This is just a continuation of that."

Besides his own research, Kinsley oversees a number of undergraduate students conducting their own research projects. The focus of most of the research by students is to understand the psychological mechanisms involved in creating mothers, he said. The research could be applied to understand what goes wrong when women do not have maternal instincts.

Most of the research uses rats, which are similar to humans in brain structure and hormones.

"Their shared biology is greater than their differential biology," he said. "There's a sort of conservation of evolution."

Kinsley allows students to choose their own projects and only restrains them to topics exploring motherhood. Students conduct research primarily independently. Kinsley said he had enjoyed having students research with him and that Richmond provided a great environment for student research.

Junior Sarah Dinces has been researching the changes in reaction during stages of pregnancy. She has been studying a hormone in the brain called norepinephrine, which affects reaction reflexes. She has tested virgin rats, pregnant rats, lactating rats and rats that have given birth multiple times in order to cover all ranges.

"It seems right now as if everything improves," she said of reflexes during and after pregnancy.

When he was asked to research with Kinsley, senior Aaron Tomarchio decided to create his own project. He has been studying maternity's effect on addiction in a particular area of the brain.

The mechanisms that control narcotic drug reception can be seen in the brain, he said. He has looked at stained brain slides under a microscope. Although he is in the beginning stages of his senior project, he said that other research had showed that rats with more litters were less likely to become addicted to narcotic drugs such as cocaine and morphine.

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Second-year graduate student Cassie Jones supervises some of Kinsley's research students in the lab. She is conducting her own research about memory and motherhood. This is based on the MIT study in which rats were placed into the tracks of mazes and their brain activity was monitored to measure the learning process, she said.

She has been using brain slides rather than electrodes to measure the brain activity in rats of various stages.

"So far, virgin rats make the most stops but for a shorter time, while rats with more litters make less stops, meaning that they learn faster," she said. She explained that when the rat stops, there is a burst of brain activity when the rat remembers the path it has just followed, which is a learning process. In humans, this could translate into increased spatial memory, she said.

Senior Danielle Skurka learned about Kinsley's research during a psychology class she took her sophomore year. She said she was immediately interested in the subject matter and decided to do her research with him.

Skurka is now studying vision changes in pregnant rats. She puts a cricket across from rats in different stages of motherhood in an enclosure and tests the time it takes for the rat to notice, she said. The differences have been significant during her preliminary research, she said.

Instead of the brain, junior Jen Bodary is looking for estrogen receptors in the hearts of mother and virgin rats. Another student showed her a study that located estrogen receptors in the heart, and she wanted to know if there was a relationship to motherhood, Bodary said. She is in the beginning stages of research and has been collecting data from heart slides.

In a project being recognized in Washington this year, junior Tajh Ferguson has been researching Alzheimer's genes in rats with different pregnancy experience. She wrote a proposal for the Howard Hughes Medical Institute and was granted money to research this for two summers.

Ferguson said she believed pregnancy decreased the risk of Alzheimer's, but there were many other controlling factors that determine if someone would get the disease, she said. She uses brain punches in her research to check tissue in the hippocampus region, which houses learning and memory functions. Brain punches are tissue samples taken from specific areas of the brain. The preliminary results show less expression of genes thought to indicate Alzheimer's in rats that have had multiple litters, she said.

Senior Angelo Dibello has been studying memory activity in rats as well, but this time in male rats. He has been using different stimuli to test whether fear or soothing creates more memory, he said. The rats are exposed to either fox urine to cause fear or female rat urine, and then the same stimulus is given to them again after 21 days, he explained. He has studied the brain slides to see the effects, which he is collecting information on now.

Kinsley has more students involved in his research and said that he always tried to find a place for interested students to research with him. They agree that research is integral to an education in psychology.

He gives due credit to his students for their research, which has supported the link between pregnancy and increased intelligence in many cases, he said.

Contact reporter Kaileigh Connolly at

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