Collin Warrick, a junior at Washington State University, joined a neuroscience research team to develop an innovative procedure for testing cognitive flexibility in animals using a set of visual and spatial cues.
“I get to work with tomorrow’s scientists and use intricate methodology,” Warrick said. “Together, we directly apply our knowledge and experience the rush of seeing a trend.”
Warrick is originally from Tacoma, Washington. After he graduated high school, he took a gap year to solidify a plan and prepare for his future. He earned a degree in audio technology from Spokane Falls Community College. Warrick worked five more years, until his experiences and relationships lead him back to college.
“I knew I needed to have some questions answered about the natural world around me and myself,” Warrick said. “While I have always been very resourceful, I wasn’t able to facilitate resources on my own.”
He knew that school was the pathway to answering these questions with help from libraries, textbooks, people and connections.
“At that point in my life, school was the best option, because of the legitimacy of the sources for any questions that I had,” Warrick said.
The Transfer to WSU
Warrick started pursuing a degree in Biology with the intention to transfer to the University of Washington. However, he learned how Washington State developed the sciences, particularly neuroscience, and made a choice.
“Pullman is primarily known as an agricultural school with nothing out of the ordinary and lots of cows, so I was holding out for University of Washington,” Warrick said. “In the meantime, I joined a summer research experience program in Pullman at the suggestion of my biology teacher. I saw the neuroscience building and was blown away.”
The research Washington State offered and his relationship with the primary investigator attracted him to the school. Currently, he is majoring in neuroscience with a minor in psychology. His transition from Spokane Community College to Washington State was mostly smooth.
“The social activities and events aren’t unlike Spokane,” Warrick said. “Tacoma is very urban, but Pullman and Spokane are outdoorsy. I get the opportunity to go camping or to bonfires, things I don’t get in the city. It was refreshing.”
After Warrick completed the summer research program at Washington State, participating in the Annual Biomedical Research Conference for Minority Students (ABRCMS) became a goal. Both the American Society of Microbiology and Warrick’s school awarded him travel grants.
“My advisor told me that by that time I had research experience, but I needed experience presenting posters,” Warrick said. “So, I said, why not give it a shot?”
He submitted his work from the previous summer, a study entitled The Role of the Endogenous Cannabinoid System in the Prefrontal Cortex in Cognitive Flexibility. ABCRMS accepted his research, and Warrick received an award at the conference.
“This was my first step into the professional research world,” Warrick said. “I put less emphasis on the award and more focus on the chance to engage with people from across the country. Now, even though this school is so large, I have connections with scientists from other states, and other countries even.”
His research focused on the systems that facilitate the effects of cannabis within the decision-making area of the brain and our ability to switch from one set of rules to another. The researchers used synthetic cannabis supplements on rats for this experiment.
“We inserted brain implants, administered drugs and trained them to press levers for sugar,” Warrick said. “We trained them to follow a visual cue, then to ignore the cue and always press the left lever. That is the cognitive flexibility.”
The experiment sought to answer the question, does an inhibition of cannabinoid system signaling influence the ability to go from a visual oriented set of directions to an ego-spatial set of directions. The research team used operant chamber conditioning to train and assess the rats after administering either a cannabinoid system antagonist or a control substance.
“Unfortunately, we got a lot of null data,” Warrick said. “This wasn’t consistent with the literature, so I reviewed it with the primary investigator. Most likely, it is because we had such a small number of animals. The main takeaway was the successful execution of cognitive flexibility.”
Warrick is now researching the effects of THC in pregnancy on the offspring. For these experiments, Warrick is using an authentic cannabis concentrate. He hopes to attend graduate school at Washington State, then begin research on psychoactive compounds.
“A lot of the questions that I have can be approached using similar procedures, like cognitive flexibility, social behavior, anxiety,” Warrick said. “These questions are just as unanswered as they are in the realm of cannabis. Learning how to investigate a substance that is on the fringe will help me investigate controversial compounds in the future.”