Lecturer, Cognitive Science
Alicia Walf’s area of expertise is on the role of hormones for plasticity. One well-known action of hormones is their production in glands in the body to regulate growth, a process that occurs throughout the lifespan and is critical for many basic processes (e.g. reproduction, stress responding). However, beyond these growth effects in the body, hormones mediate cognitive processes (e.g. learning, motivation, emotion, stress) and neural/behavioral plasticity. A research interest is to understand the mechanisms that hormones have in the brain for cognition/plasticity (relevant for neuropsychiatric and neurodegenerative disorders) and the extent to which these mechanisms may be different from those in the body (relevant for cancer). One receptor target that may have dissociable effects for growth in corticolimbic regions of the brain and reproductive tissues that are cancer-prone is estrogen receptor beta. Investigations of this research question have been supported by funding from Department of Defense Breast Cancer Research Program and the Swedish pharmaceutical company, Karo Bio.
A related focus is on understanding the stress response. Stress can be simply defined as any challenge to an individual’s balance. Examination of the stress response can be conceived of as a way to further explore and understand the mind-brain problem, a central issue in neuroscience. For example, the stress response is initiated when a threat is perceived (actual or a product of thoughts), which produces a bodily response (e.g release of stress hormones from adrenal glands, increase in heart rate) that then feeds back on the function of the brain/mind (e.g. changes in consciousness, feeling of anxiety, “flashbulb memory”).
The stress response, which has physiological, endocrine and behavioral/cognitive components, is believed to be involved in consolidation of the individuals’ experience, which may mediate future cognitive and affective responses. Although the stressor (stimuli producing the stress response) can often be easily defined, the varied ways in which the individual responds to stressors to restore balance are not entirely understood and are a research focus. In support, there are a plethora of factors that play into the individual’s stress response, which can include hormonal context (e.g. male vs. female), differences in perception, affective and cognitive processing at the time of the challenge, as well as plasticity in the system to alter later responses to challenges. These changes in feedback of the system contribute to long-term and even inter-generational (epigenetic) stress effects. Dr. Walf’s research has focused on these factors underlying individual differences and the role of hormones (stress and reproductive) as integrators of information about the current state of the body and brain and that of the outside environment. Dr. Walf has published many peer-reviewed, empirical and review articles on novel actions of hormones for plasticity and stress responding.
Dr. Walf is committed to training, mentorship, and educational outreach. She teaches core and topics courses in behavioral and cognitive neuroscience, and regularly advises undergraduate thesis students. She is on the steering committee of the NorthEast Under/graduate Research Organization for Neuroscience (N.E.U.R.O.N.). N.E.U.R.O.N. is a group focused on enhancing neuroscience training and research, with the ultimate goal of bringing (neuro)science to a more diverse group. Dr. Walf has been most recently recognized for her research and training endeavors with the inaugural Luciano Martini Prize for Young Investigators in Neuroendocrinology (2009, presented at the Steroids & the Nervous System Meeting in Torino, Italy), and the Suzannah Tieman Research/Mentorship Award for Junior Faculty (2012, presented at the N.E.U.R.O.N. Conference in NY, NY).
Ph.D., Behavioral Neuroscience, University at Albany