The Minister of Science and Higher Education Stipends for Distiguished Young Researchers

Ewelina Knapska works at Laboratory of Defensive Conditioned Reflexes led by Dr. Tomasz Werka. She is an alumna of the University of Warsaw with majors in biology and psychology. She obtained her PhD in 2006 at the Nencki Institute. In 2004 she paid a 3-month visit to the laboratory led by prof. Hans-Peter Lipp, Division of Neuroanatomy and Behavior, Institute of Anatomy, University of Zurich. In 2006-08 she was a Fellow Researcher at the University of Michigan, Department of Psychology, where she worked with Prof. Stephen Maren (partially funded by Foundation for Polish Science through its KOLUMB program).

Dr. Knapska’s research activities are focused on the neural mechanisms underlying fear response. Her current research activities conform to three major programs:

The neural mechanisms of extinction and renewal of learned fears.
In order to “extinguish” fear, one needs to be able to evoke this response controlled conditions. In laboratories using animal (mostly rat or mouse) models, an animal is placed in a cage, where a conditioned stimulus (CS, usually a tone) is presented together with an unpleasant unconditioned stimulus (US). After a few repetitions, the animal starts expecting the US whenever the CS shows up, which leads to characteristic behavior: so-called freezing. This behavior continues for many following presentations of the CS, not paired with the US, but it is eventually extinguished. However, in certain conditions, e.g., when the animal is put into the cage different from the one where extinction training took place, the fear response can return despite its extinction (renewal effect). The return of fear after extinction is a considerable challenge for maintaining long-lasting fear suppression after exposure-based therapies. Therefore, examining the nature and properties of fear extinction in laboratory rodents may help to optimize the treatment of human anxiety disorders such as panic disorder and post-traumatic stress disorder. This project is funded through the Homing program of the Foundation for Polish Science.

Socially transferred fear – the neural basis of empathy.
The most fundamental feature of empathy is the ability of receiving emotional signals from another being. But can an emotional state of one animal affect another animal? Dr. Knapska’s studies contributed significantly to positive answer to this question, showing that the amygdala, a brain structure involved in processing fear, is activated in a characteristic way, when the emotion of fear is transmitted. It however remains to be discovered which neural or, more generally, physiological mechanisms (including the effects of estrous cycle in females) regulate this transfer. Understanding the neural mechanisms of social communication may bring about a deeper understanding of the roots of autism (project funded by the Ministry of Science and Higher Education).

Designing and standardization of automated behavioral tests for mice.
Isolation and disturbance by humans are two factors that can have a major influence on the normal behavior of mice. They can cause serious lab-to-lab differences in the results. The solution of these problems is automatic assessment of mice behavior. We use the IntelliCage system and its modifications. We are designing and testing specific behavioral protocols for both social transfer of emotions and extinction/renewal involving tasks (funded by the Ministry of Science and Higher Education, European systems genetics network for the study of complex genetic human diseases using mouse genetic reference populations, SYSGENET).