Hamilton Examines Natural Remedies to Fetal Alcohol Exposure

As a 2014 Beckman Postdoctoral Fellow, Gillian Hamilton is investigating behavioral interventions that may alleviate symptoms of fetal alcohol exposure. 

Like any newcomer to college, Gillian Hamilton experienced the increased stress that comes with the transition from high school to college classes. In a research methods class during her first semester of her freshman year, Hamilton was asked to design an experiment, and she decided to write about what was affecting her the most: stress.

“I wanted to learn more about it, and the funny thing was, the T.A. in the class came up to me afterward and told me about a stress lab on campus. I looked into it, and ended up working in the lab until I graduated,” Hamilton said. 

“It was just amazing. I was looking at how stress—something everyone deals with—affects the brain so much. I knew that was the sort of field I wanted to study: how things we don’t control impact our brain, and how we can alleviate or control that.”

During her graduate studies in behavioral neuroscience at the University of Delaware, she became involved in studying the long-term adverse effects of fetal alcohol exposure and the potential benefits of behavioral therapies. As a 2014 Beckman Postdoctoral Fellow, she’s continuing research in this area. 

“I had seen how fetal alcohol exposure had affected people I knew. It’s just something that’s completely not their fault, they’re born with it. It would be nice to come up with a way to help these people that’s not just giving them more drugs,” Hamilton said. “Instead, we’re looking at more natural interventions—like running and environmental enrichment.”

Hamilton came to Illinois in January 2013 with the intention of working as a postdoc with Justin Rhodes, a faculty member in the NeuroTech Group who researches the effects of exercise on brain function and cognition using mice as a model organism. She has recently investigated how exercise interventions and subsequent brain neuron growth affect memory-related tasks in mice with fetal alcohol exposure.

“I developed this model in which mice are exposed to alcohol in utero during the third trimester equivalent, and we’ve found this leads to giant behavioral deficits after they’re born,” Hamilton said. “Once they’re born, we give them 24-hour access to a running wheel over a prolonged period of time, and we see a recovery of these deficits and an increase in new neurons being formed in the brain.”

I had seen how fetal alcohol exposure had affected people I knew. It’s just something that’s completely not their fault, they’re born with it. It would be nice to come up with a way to help these people that’s not just giving them more drugs. Instead, we’re looking at more natural interventions—like running and environmental enrichment. - Gillian Hamilton

Hamilton’s work as a Postdoctoral Fellow stemmed from a collaboration with Beckman faculty member John Rogers.

“During one of the first seminars I went to as a postdoc, I saw John Rogers giving a talk about his mircoLEDs that, when attached to mice brains, were able to inhibit motor coordination: the mice would stop running when the researchers lit the microLED up in the brain,” Hamilton said. “So I went to Justin and said, ‘This is really cool, I would like to get involved with this.’ ”

Hamilton is now collaborating with postdoc Gunchul Shin in Rogers’ lab along with a technician from Rhodes’ lab, Daniel Miller, to use these microLEDs in her fetal alcohol exposure model. 

“With John Rogers’ technology, we can (use the microLEDS to) actually label those new neurons that are generated during the exercise intervention, and we can temporarily shut them off while the mice are exercising,” Hamilton said. “Then we see if the mice still show a cognitive deficit or if they recover. It will really let us know if it’s these newly generated neurons that are really playing a role in recovering from the effects of fetal alcohol exposure.”

The microLED is a continually evolving prototype developed specifically for Hamilton’s work, which she says is one of the perks of the collaborative atmosphere at Beckman.

“I’m working with students in both Justin’s and John’s labs in all types of disciplines, and we’re all trying to solve these problems together,” Hamilton said. “It’s pretty cool.” 

This article is part of the Fall 2014 Synergy Issue, a publication of the Communications Office of the Beckman Institute.