He is Addressing Addiction Through Neuroscience

February 20, 2020

Eric Garr (Ph.D. '19, Psychology), now a postdoc at Johns Hopkins, has personal reasons for making his animal behavior research relevant to human health.

Eric Garr (Ph.D. '19, Psychology)
Eric Garr (Ph.D. '19, Psychology)

As a doctoral student at The Graduate Center, Eric Garr (Ph.D. ’19, Psychology) worked with Professor Andrew Delamater (GC/Brooklyn; Psychology) to understand how we learn and make decisions. Now, as a postdoctoral fellow at Johns Hopkins, working in the lab of Patricia Janak and funded by a Hartwell Foundation Fellowship, Garr is taking his research to the next level.

The Janak lab focuses on how neural circuits in the brain control associative learning. Garr is interested in how the brain changes and adjusts what it’s learned after receiving feedback. The research could have implications for treating addiction.

The last study Garr conducted with Delamater was recently published in the journal Neurobiology of Learning and Memory. By studying rodents, Garr and Delamater figured out where in the brain two different mental processes involving movement are located. Knowing what parts of the brain are involved in each process could help researchers verify certain models of learning and search for therapies to help those with pathological cases of compulsive motor habits.

The Graduate Center spoke with Garr about his work and path to a postdoc.

The Graduate Center: What are the main takeaways of your study with Professor Delamater?

Garr: We found that that learning a sequence of movements via trial-and-error is independent from the ability to control those movements based on the anticipation of future consequences. We showed that suppressing the activity of a specific brain cell type in rats can interfere with their ability to learn the correct order of movements, but not their ability to respond appropriately when the reward is devalued. Conversely, suppressing the activity of a different set of cells in another area of the brain spared the learning of movement order but interfered with patterns of behavior when the reward value went down.

GC: After your initial interest in psychology in high school, what was your path into neuroscience?

Garr: As soon as I arrived at college, I immersed myself in research. I started out by working with undergraduate participants in a study on personality and memory, then switched to cognitive development in kids. Eventually, I decided to focus on learning and decision-making in animal models. This means having better control over experimental processes, and it more closely approaches the potential to impact human health and well-being. A friend of mine who suffered from severe depression and addiction took his own life a couple years ago, and his memory serves to remind me about the ultimate purpose of my research.

GC: How do these interests align with what you are doing now at Johns Hopkins?

Garr: I want to know how the brain controls the ability to learn from feedback and flexibly adjust behavior. If I can understand how such flexibility is made possible, then I should be able to understand those instances in which flexibility is lacking. Drug addiction may be one of those instances. 
GC: Can you describe your experience at The Graduate Center?

Garr: My time in graduate school gave me fantastic training in the study of animal behavior, which is a strength that I bring to the table in the lab I currently work in at Johns Hopkins. I had the opportunity to learn from experts in the fields of associative learning — Andrew Delamater, Guillermo [William] Esber, Stefano Ghirlanda — and ethology — Ofer Tchernichovski, Jennifer Basil, Chris Braun. I also appreciated the pedagogy training, which will likely come in handy down the road when it comes time to apply to faculty positions.

GC: What led you to a postdoctoral position at Johns Hopkins?

Garr: Toward the end of my Ph.D., I knew that I wanted to seek out a postdoc where I could take advantage of my strengths while also learn new techniques. Great neuroscience combines a solid understanding of behavioral phenomena with precise neural circuit dissection. While my training at The Graduate Center gave me a solid foundation and understanding of animal behavior, I lacked experience with many of the techniques that define modern systems neuroscience. I sought out and interviewed with many professors, and while I was given several offers, I ultimately chose a lab that checked off all the boxes — a solid record of high-quality publications, great mentorship, plenty of funding, and shared scientific interests. 

GC: What do you ultimately hope to do in your career?

Garr: My hope is to remain in academia as a researcher and eventually apply for faculty positions. More broadly, I wish to contribute more deeply to our understanding of how we and other animals learn and make adaptive decisions by combining carefully designed and complex behavioral tasks with cutting-edge imaging and tagging techniques.