When Jean Chen Shih has a free moment – which is not often for the newly appointed Fellow to the American Association for the Advancement of Science – she writes articles in her native Chinese about her family, her feelings…and all the things that motivate and move people.
It’s a fitting sideline for the University Professor and the Boyd P. and Elsie D. Welin Professor in Pharmacology and Pharmaceutical Sciences. After all, Shih began researching the brain because “since I was young I have always been curious about how people think. I found studying people fascinating, and never thought I would work in a laboratory because it seemed too isolated”.
Yet it is in the laboratory that Shih has discovered a piece of what drives human actions: she has won international acclaim for her study of how the brain enzyme monoamine oxidase (MAO) affects behaviors.
MAO influences many different neurotransmitters (chemicals that help nerve cells communicate), including serotonin, dopamine and norepinephrine. Shih has worked on understanding how genes affect neurotransmitter functions through genetically engineered MAO. Creating perfect models for testing new drugs, MAO “knockout mice” – those without the enzyme, Shih is able to alter neurotransmitters and study the resulting behaviors.
Shih’s knockout mice are significantly more aggressive than their counterparts with plenty of MAO. “The mice help us see what compounds induce a certain behavior and what compounds can rescue this behavior,” says Shih.
Shih’s work has uncovered other behavioral effects related to MAO evident in her genetically altered mice, such as depression, alcohol abuse, obesity, autism and schizophrenia. “I’d like to see our work help us better understand mental diseases and the environmental impact on behavior. That’s how we’ll really be able to help reduce human suffering,” says Shih.