Heather L. Eisthen, PhD
Associate Professor, Integrative Biology
Ph.D., 1992, Indiana University
My central interest is in the evolution of new neural structures and their role in behavior. My research focuses on changes in the olfactory system over the course of vertebrate evolution, and the origin and function of the accessory olfactory (vomeronasal) system in tetrapods. The vomeronasal system has been suggested to have arisen as an adaptation to terrestrial life and to function as a pheromone detector, but recent data suggest that these views are simplistic and inaccurate. Working mostly with axolotls (Ambystoma mexicanum), a nonmetamorphosing salamander species, I am pursuing three interrelated lines of research. First, I am investigating chemosensory-guided behavior in axolotls. This includes studies of chemical signalling in courtship and mating behavior, as well as attempts to isolate the compounds involved. I am also interested in examining the role of chemical senses in foraging behavior in axolotls. Second, I am using electrophysiological techniques to examine the function and odor response properties of olfactory subsystems, including the vomeronasal system, with the goal of determining whether different portions of the olfactory and vomeronasal systems carry different types of information or function in different behavioral contexts. Third, I am examining the developmental origin of the olfactory and vomeronasal organs and their targets in the central nervous system, with a view to understanding the developmental changes involved in the evolutionary origin of the vomeronasal system. Students in the lab are exposed to a wide variety of concepts and techniques from behavioral biology, neurophysiology, neuroanatomy, and experimental embryology. I hope that by taking a broad, integrative approach to these problems, we will gain a better understanding of how new neural structures arise in evolution, and how they get incorporated into an existing nervous system to mediate behavior.