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Amazing Brains

Five of Richmond's brightest scientific minds.

Craig Kinsley

"Craig's at it again."

That's what University of Richmond neuroscientist Craig Kinsley's parents would say. "I was forever bringing bugs and animals into our house and doing experiments," says the California native. "Just basic curiosity."

Well, it was more like an obsession, but his father, an insurance broker, and his mother, Dorothy, never minded. Among the research: Craig would pull fleas off the family cocker spaniel, Dinah, and study the little critters while they feasted on his arm. Dinah gave way to dogs Tippy and Baby, two "long-suffering pets" whose reactions to such tasks as eating were what Craig loved to watch. Craig's two sisters didn't escape his eye either; both, he says, also fueled his "interest in behavior and the brain." But there was one bit of research that Craig kept to himself for a long, long time.

At about the age of 10, he set out to find the cure for cancer. He grabbed a shampoo bottle and added every chemical around the house that he could find: Drano. Aspirin. And as the "coup de grace," he urinated in the bottle, and placed it in the back of the cabinet where it could "ferment."

A few weeks later, he was shocked to see his father with the bottle in-hand. The elder Kinsley turned to his wife and asked, befuddled, "Dot, where'd you get this shampoo? I can't get a lather with it."

It took a "good decade" for Craig to fess up, he says now, as he sits in his office where Nat King Cole music plays in the background. "My parents were very indulgent."

Take a look at his office and you'll see he's no stodgy boffin, though he has the credentials. (His postdoctoral work was in neuroscience and neuroendocrinology at Harvard Medical School).. Among the oddities around the space are an Elvis lamp, a Sigmund Freud action figure and a shot of Kinsley with a rat in-hand. The caption reads, "Look at me. I'm dead sexy."

Then there's the flying pig. Kinsley sometimes jokes that he'll get research published in Nature Magazine when "pigs fly."

As it happens, Kinsley is modest; his research on how pregnancy modifies female behavior has recently made headlines. It has been reported by Nature, as well as press everywhere from Latin America to Europe, Texas to Toronto. And he's quick to credit fellow researchers, specifically Kelly Lambert from Randolph-Macon College, and his undergraduate and graduate students who fascilitated his research. "This was truly a collective, collaborative endeavor," he says.

Recently, when the 48-year-old researcher spoke at a Society of Neuroscience meeting in Orlando, he presented some intriguing news: Pregnancy and the demands of rearing offspring enhance neural activity in rats. Simply put, Kinsley's research shows that hormonal changes during pregnancy lead to improved memory and learning that lasts throughout a rat's life.

But what do a bunch of lab rats have to do with humans?

Kinsley's study comes at an interesting point, at a time when there's discussion about declining birthrates among Western women. The timing isn't lost on the press. Just the other week, the media cranked out headlines that screamed, "Motherhood makes women smarter" and "Motherhood boosts brain."

Kinsley, for his part, takes a judicious tack; he's reluctant to suggest what his study means for women. "I can speculate like crazy, but the scientist in me is reluctant to do that," he says. "It's premature to make grandiose statements about what it means for humans."

But he can say that such research may lead to greater understanding of Alzheimer's and other age-related brain deterioration.

His own interest in such research began in the early 1990s when his wife, Nancy, became pregnant. For years, she had been "career-oriented" and ambivalent about having kids, but when pregnancy came, Kinsley saw her attitude shift from "indifference to ardor," he says. "I would ask her a question, and she wouldn't hear me because she was so focused on caring for our daughter." Now a father of two, Kinsley says that watching his wife's "amazing transition" led him to ponder the relationship between maternal behavior and maternal efficiency.

And his research continues.

When asked about his hobbies, he says, "First of all, my kids keep me busy, and I just like doing simple things with them — nothing that requires too much expense so they learn that life can be enjoyed simply." His own sense of wonder is still at work, and he says that "there's a difference between your chronological and mental age."

His life's work might very well be summed up by a favorite passage of his: "What thou seest in me is a body exhausted by the labours of the mind. I have found in Dame Nature not indeed an unkind, but a coy mistress: Watchful nights, anxious days, slender meals, and endless labours must be the lot of all who pursue Her, through her labyrinths and meanders."

The chase is on. — Lisa Singh

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