Dr. Liz McCullagh
Department of Integrative Biology
Dr. Liz McCullagh joined the Oklahoma State University faculty in January 2020 as an assistant professor in the Department of Integrative Biology. Her group is interested in how the brain localizes sounds in the environment and what factors influence sound localization ability.
Sensory systems play an important role in integrating information from an animal’s environment to drive appropriate behavioral responses. Sensory systems are early to develop, setting up critical hardware for basic neural processing of environmental inputs. However, we know that despite early development and critical function, sensory systems can adapt and change over time (plasticity) based on genetics, social needs, environmental cues, degradation, injury, and other factors. The auditory system is one of the first sensory systems to fully develop in many animals and is critical for many types of interactions such as avoiding predators, finding mates, social communication, and basic survival. The process of locating a sound starts by integrating acoustic cues received by both ears which are then compared in the auditory brainstem of mammals. The auditory brainstem circuit has classically been treated as hardware that rarely gets updated or altered due to its essential task of locating sounds. However, our work and others have shown that there is ongoing modulation of this circuit throughout life as well as variability in how the circuit has evolved based on an animal’s social needs, environment, life stage, and genetic status among other things. Specifically, we can use the auditory brainstem as a model circuit to study different factors that alter basic neural computations in the brain that lead to neural plasticity.
Processing of sound location is critical for social interactions such as carrying on a conversation in a noisy room or listening to a teacher in a loud classroom. Auditory dysfunction is one of the most prevalent symptoms described by patients with Fragile X syndrome (FXS). FXS is the most common single gene disorder linked to autism spectrum disorders. Auditory symptoms in FXS are often described as hypersensitivity to sound stimuli, making them overwhelming and difficult to localize. Understanding where in the brain this auditory dysfunction originates is an important step to determine the underlying cause of these issues and target treatment. The McCullagh lab group aims to understand how the auditory brainstem, where sound locations are processed, contributes to sound hypersensitivity in conditions like FXS. In addition, the lab is interested in understanding what factors, such as environment, social behavior, hormones, genetics, and others, are involved in altering basic sound processing. We use techniques that range from genetics, anatomy, in vivo, in vitro and circuit level physiology, and behavior to understand in a more complete way how the brain processes sound.
One of the most important jobs in the many hats of a science faculty member is to train the next generation of scientists. In addition to this next generation being well trained in performing rigorous and reproducible science, the McCullagh lab hopes to diversify who can fulfill these scientific positions through training and mentoring that is justice, equity, diversity, and inclusion focused. In addition to tackling important scientific questions and pursuing them regularly, a mission of our lab is to break down barriers that prevent people from pursuing scientific questions.