What do goldfish and 21-year-old male Bowdoin students have in common? They both exhibit sexual and aggressive behaviors, traits that make them ideal subjects for Professor of Psychology and Neuroscience Rick Thompson's research.

That sex and aggression are "fundamental behaviors in pretty much every species" is fascinating to Thompson, who seeks to understand the relationship between those behaviors and what their role in the brain is. For Thompson, understanding the "complex and powerful" brain mechanisms that cause animals to act in certain ways is "the most interesting thing."

While Thompson's past studies have focused on the effect of a peptide called vasopressin on the aggression response in humans, he is hoping to look at the effects of the chemical on pair bonding and affiliation in his upcoming study. Studies performed on prairie voles, animals that have one life-long mate, have shown that the voles release chemicals after sex that help to cement the pair's bond. In males, this chemical is vasopressin. In fact, a study that came out this fall showed a correlation between the presence of vasopressin and marital satisfaction in humans.

"This is not a new drug we're testing," Thompson said. "We're just testing a new kind of effect it might have on social behavior in addition to sociological processes," like marital satisfaction. Thompson hopes to add to this research by studying whether or not vasopressin does the same thing to humans as it does to male prairie voles: help to facilitate bonding. He will do this by having some of the subjects inhale vasopressin and look at pictures of the opposite sex. In addition to monitoring physiological responses, Thompson will use an fMRI to look at which brain regions are activated when subjects are looking at the faces.

Thompson has already conducted research on aggression in humans and determined that "vasopressin affects responses related to aggression when males are presented with other male faces." Thompson was hesitant to give more information about his findings as Bowdoin students will be the subjects of his next study and he does not want previous knowledge of the experiments to affect how his subjects respond.

At the moment, Thompson is awaiting the approval of his grant application, without which his research cannot proceed. The application process was more arduous than before, as Thompson is trying to conduct his experiments at a local hospital and because his studies involve human subjects, the approval process by Bowdoin's Internal Review Board (IRB) has been complicated. According to the IRB, when people are involved in scientific research, the experiments must take place in Dudley Coe under supervision of a doctor. Since Dr. Jeffrey Benson abruptly left the college in the winter of 2007, Thompson can no longer conduct his research on campus, and working at a local hospital has proven to be difficult.

"As soon as he was gone I gave up on this research for a while," he said. But encouragement from a colleague at Emory University convinced Thompson to try again. According to Thompson, "It's now or never. If we don't make this work soon, other people are going to do it."

Students are not just subjects in Thompson's research, they are often assistants and occasionally co-authors of his papers. His first studies on vasopressin and behavior in humans were inspired by Shiva Jupta '01. Jupta wanted to do experiments with vasopressin on humans, and insisted when Thompson was hesitant. Jupta set up the experiments, figured out how to do the physiological recordings of the subjects, and is a co-author of the study, which came out in 2004. According to Thompson, Jupta "was huge in all of that."

In addition to working on behavioral responses in humans, Thompson also conducts research using goldfish. Through the use of the fish, Thompson hopes to understand the effect of peptides on basic behaviors like "the tendency to approach or withdraw from an individual." Of course, he is also interested in sexual and aggressive behavior in the fish. "It always comes back to sex and aggression, so it seems," he said.

The author of many scientific papers and a professor at the college for 10 years, Thompson was awarded tenure four years ago. He has found that the job security that comes with being a professor at Bowdoin is both a blessing and a source of anxiety. The knowledge that he could have the same job for the rest of his working life has led Thompson to tell himself he could leave whenever he wanted to. He tries to "keep some sense of adventure" and seek out "diversity and alternative interests" while remaining at Bowdoin. Even while asking himself "gosh, is this what my whole life looks like from now on?" he admits that tenure is hard to turn down. "I'm glad I like what I do, because it would be hard to leave."