WC Young Recent Graduate Award

2021 Award Winner: Johnathan Borland, PhD

Johnathan Borland graduated from Emory University with a B.S. in Chemistry and a B.A. in Psychology in 2009.  As an undergraduate, he conducted two different honors research projects simultaneously.  In one project he investigated the synthesis of a nucleoside analogue that acts as an anti-viral reverse transcriptase inhibitor for HIV and in the other project he studied racial segregation in the metropolitan Atlanta area.  After graduation Johnathan took post-baccalaureate courses in preparation for pursing a PhD in Neuroscience and worked as an Analytical Chemist and an Emergency Medical Technician.  Johnathan entered the graduate program at the Neuroscience Institute of Georgia State University in the fall of 2013 and studied in the lab of Dr. Elliott Albers.  He received his PhD in 2019.

As a graduate student, Johnathan originally became interested in investigating the neurobiological mechanisms controlling aggression. His first independent research project explored the role of GABA in the regulation of aggressive behavior through its actions in the lateral septum.  This work which has been published in Psychopharmacology found that social experience can have profound effects on the neuronal mechanisms mediating aggression, especially in males, and that extrasynaptic GABAA receptors may be an important therapeutic target in disorders characterized by high levels of aggression.

Johnathan’s research interests then began to focus on investigation of the neural mechanisms responsible for social reward.  Johnathan along with another graduate student demonstrated that oxytocin (OT) and arginine-vasopressin (AVP) activate OTRs and not AVP V1aRs to mediate social reward. Further, these studies published in the journal Psychoneuroendocrinology were the first to demonstrate that the activation of OT receptors in the ventral tegmental area (VTA) is essential for the expression of the rewarding properties of social interactions.  As part of his dissertation Johnathan developed a new approach called the Operant Social Preference (OSP) task for measuring social reward using a device that he designed and published in the Journal of Neuroscience Methods.  In subsequent experiments published in Psychoneuroendocrinology Johnathan went on to investigate the reinforcing properties of social interactions under conditions of high or low reward value, and high or low behavioral effort using the OSP task.  These data revealed that activation of OT receptors in the VTA are critical for the reinforcing properties of social interactions and that social interactions exhibit duration and cost dependent reinforcing effects similar to those observed with food and drugs of abuse.

Johnathan’s dissertation research went on to investigate sex differences in how social reward is mediated by OT within the VTA.  These studies published in Neuropsychopharmacology developed the novel hypothesis that there is an inverted U relationship between the “dose” of social interaction and social reward, mediated by OT; and that in females the dose–response relationship is initiated at lower doses compared with males. These studies also found that same-sex social interaction is more rewarding in females than in males, and that an inverted U relationship mediated by OT may have a critical role in assigning positive and negative valence to social stimuli.  Johnathan is also the first author on a substantial review paper published in Neuropsychopharmacology that critically examines the mechanisms mediating social reward and evaluates the inverted U hypothesis, and how sex differences in social reward processing may be essential for understanding the sex differences in the prevalence of many psychiatric disorders.

During his graduate studies, Johnathan also developed the use of amperometry to measure dopamine release from the nucleus accumbens during social interactions in hamsters and contributed to the development of techniques for the targeted disruption of OTRs using the CRISPR/cas system.  Johnathan presented 15 posters on his research as a graduate student at national and international scientific meetings.  Johnathan was the recipient of an F31 predoctoral fellowship award from NIH as well as a Honeycutt fellowship and a Brains & Behavior fellowship from the Neuroscience Institute.  In 2019, he received the Outstanding Doctoral Student Award from the Neuroscience Institute and the International Access Scholarship from GSU and the Karolinska Institute.

Johnathan also had a record of extraordinary service during his graduate career promoting other students through his many volunteer efforts.  Johnathan was significantly involved in STEM outreach activities and encouraging other underrepresented individuals into the scientific community.  He was a leader in the workplace as an EMT, in academics as a tutor and teaching assistant and in the community as an Eagle Scout.

Johnathan is currently a Postdoctoral Fellow in the lab of Dr. Robert Meisel at the University of Minnesota School of Medicine where he is investigating the molecular mechanisms regulating the rewarding properties of dominance status and sex behavior.