Emory University Assistant Professor of Psychology Aubrey Kelly received the Klingenstein-Simons Fellowship Award in the Neurosciences for her research on the brain’s modulation of social behavior, according to a Nov. 12 University press release. Kelly is the first Emory professor to receive the award.

The $225,000 grant gives Kelly funding to study social behavior of the African spiny mouse. According to Kelly, the mice will be the first mammals to demonstrate extremely cooperative behaviors. They are also easy to maintain in a lab environment, and using them will allow her to study the parts of the mammalian brain that activate during cooperative activity. 

“I can’t exactly have a meerkat colony on campus,” Kelly said.

Previously, Kelly has studied social behavior in prairie voles, a species that is monogamous and biparental, much like humans. The African spiny mouse also displays social tendencies and cooperates with strangers in larger groups, a behavior that Kelly hopes to learn more about.

Kelly’s research will focus on a network of regions in the brain known as the “social behavior network.” The network is involved in different types of behavior, such as childcare and mating. The grant will allow Kelly and her team to use viral vectors to control certain parts of the brain by programming a virus that can be injected into the brain.

These vectors can affect gene expression, such as stopping transcription of a specific protein. Scientists can then observe behaviors among mice carrying the affected genes. 

“That way, we can have causal evidence for how these certain brain regions and how this network is involved in modulating certain types of behavior,” Kelly said.

The spiny mice are optimal for such research because of their social abilities. However, African spiny mice are precocial, meaning that they are born mostly able to care for themselves. Humans and most lab mice are altricial, or dependent on their parents after birth. The precocity of spiny mice denotes a longer gestation period, which increases the time needed for a researcher to breed a new generation of mice for experimentation.

“Whereas a [regular] mouse is going to be born 21 days after the mother gets pregnant, the spiny mouse takes around 45 to 50 days,” Kelly said. “So it just makes everything longer.” 

Kelly mentioned she hopes that the new grant will help by allowing the lab to increase mouse colony sizes more efficiently. This would allow researchers to study one group while another breeds. The Klingenstein-Simons grant will also allow Kelly and her team to better understand social behavior in lab mice. 

In the future, additional grants would introduce the possibility of the team studying wild mice in Africa or Israel, according to Kelly. Doing so would allow her to further study interactions between the spiny mouse and other species to see what parts of the brain promote this higher level of cooperation.