Dr. David Euston’s interest in science was sparked at a young age. “I was always interested in the deepest mysteries, like what’s the nature of the universe?” He went on to complete an undergraduate degree in physics and, along the way, discovered another great mystery: the mind. He began taking psychology courses and eventually, as he says, “drifted” into neuroscience, “because [he] wanted to get at the what makes the mind work and that, of course, leads you to the brain.”
Dr. Euston received his Ph.D. in Psychology from the University of Oregon in 2000. His research, under the direction of Terry Takahashi, investigated the computation of sound source location in barn owls. His postdoctoral work investigated multi-electrode recordings from the hippocampus and frontal cortex in the lab of Bruce McNaughton at the University of Arizona from 2000-2007. In 2008, he joined the University of Lethbridge and is now an Associate Professor at the Canadian Centre for Behavioural Neuroscience (CCBN). “The faculty at the CCBN are at the forefront of behavioural neuroscience. It is a privilege to work among such talented colleagues.”
Dr. Euston’s current research uses rodent models to understand functions of the prefrontal cortex. One of his projects focuses on the frontal cortex’s role in vocalization and developing what he refers to as a “dictionary of rat language” to correlate calls with certain behaviours. His team is investigating if contextually appropriate behaviour is indeed governed by the frontal cortex. “We’ve been correlating the calls with specific behaviours. It’s been a lot of fun. Who knew that when an animal is jumping they’re giving a particular type of call and when they approach another animal they gave a different type of call?” His lab recently discovered how these calls are tied to specific actions, something that has never been shown before.
Dr. Euston is also working on building a model of gambling in the rat to understand behavioural addiction. The challenge, he says, is to build a viable model. “It’s a really tricky thing to capture aspects of human gambling addiction in an animal model.” Dr. Euston and his team think that “surprise” is a key aspect of gambling addiction. When someone wins money at a video lotto terminal (VLT), the surprise kicks the reward system into overdrive, and “that might be the crux of what makes gambling so sticky”.
Dr. Euston is also one of the five instructors of the Introductory Workshop on Computational Methods in Neuroscience, which took place for the third time this past summer at the University of Lethbridge. “It’s a great way to facilitate communication across Alberta. I’ve definitely made a lot of contacts with faculty in the other schools that I would never been able to get to know…that’s been a really neat experience.” The annual workshop is made possible through a partnership between Campus Alberta Neuroscience and the University of Lethbridge’s NSERC CREATE Biological Information Processing Program.
When asked what advice he would give to aspiring researchers, Dr. Euston chuckles and says, “Well, learn a lot of math.” He stresses the importance of quantitative and technical skills like programming, statistics, genetic engineering, etc. “Neuroscience draws on many other fields of science, so a strong background in these subfields is tremendously important. Ultimately, to make progress you end up collaborating with people with different areas of expertise, but the more you can learn about each area, the stronger you’ll be.”
Discovering this field’s complexity is one of the biggest lessons learned, Dr. Euston says, during his academic journey. “When you come into the field, you think that the answers are just around the corner. But the more you get into it the more you realize that it’s a huge, huge thing, and it’s going to be years before we ever understand how the mind works. It’s really humbling.” But he is not paralyzed by this uncertainty. In fact, this thirst for discovery is what drives Dr. Euston to continue his work. “Every time you turn a new scientific corner and you see some new finding it’s so exciting, whether it’s in your own lab or whether you’re reading something in Science or Nature, you think ‘oh my gosh, that is so cool.’”
Neuroscience is a budding field, Dr. Euston says with great optimism, and research on the frontal cortex is even younger. “We are still kind of groping in the dark. We don’t really have a clear picture of exactly what’s going on in the frontal cortex at a computational level. What are the inputs of the frontal cortex, what are the outputs? We don’t know, but I would really love to find out.”