Jen Peterson, Ph.D.

Jen PetersonContact Information


Research Interests

I received my Ph.D. in Psychology from Texas Christian University in 2013. My dissertation examined the sexually dimorphic nature of ultrasonic vocalizations (USV) in Long Evans rats during senescence and, more precisely, how USVs can be used as a model of human vocal aging. Overall, my research has examined animal vocalization as a model for vocal aging and social communication in songbirds and rats. Although the rat laryngeal system has been used as a model for aging in human systems, my work is unique in that it characterizes the normal developmental changes in vocalizations and correlates them to the histological changes of the laryngeal tissue. Moreover, the age-related changes that occur in laryngeal tissue are very similar in rats and humans, supporting the use of the rat model for human vocal aging.

I have successfully correlated age-related declines in the acoustic characteristics of vocalizations with histological features of the laryngeal tissue in male rats. These data are especially interesting as they show a direct relationship between laryngeal histology and acoustic declines in vocalizations, even though ultrasonic vocalizations are not produced by a vibratory mechanism. In rats, audible sounds are produced through vibration of the vocal folds, in the same manner as human speech; however, ultrasonic vocalizations are believed to be produced thorough a controlled “air jet”. Because of the differences in sound production mechanism, the correlation between histological aging of the vocal folds and decreases in acoustic measures of the vocal tissue had not been previously investigated.

I was recently involved in a series of experiments examining the protective features of social support in the form of social buffering. It is known that social support networks in rodents, just as in humans, lower stress hormone levels in painful or stressful situations. My goal was to extend previous studies by using ultrasonic vocalizations as a more sensitive quantitative measure of social buffering effects in an animal model. My results indicated that animals that received physical contact from conspecifics prior to fear conditioning showed fewer signs of fear and anxiety than controls, even after a very brief buffering period. Positive correlations between social buffering and decreased fear and anxiety may lead to new ways of developing treatment plans when repeated painful processes must be used on humans or animal models. Additionally, a lowered anxiety/fearful response may lead to less perceived pain during procedures resulting in improved patient morale.

I am also interested in social memory and social attachment in laboratory rats. It has been previously demonstrated that rats can identify specific humans through approach-type behavior. Moreover, many researchers believe that ultrasonic vocalizations are an indicator of affect in rats and may actually allow us to study emotional behavior in rodents. I have shown that rats produce distinct types of vocalizations when handled by a familiar human as opposed to when they are handled by someone novel to them. Ultrasonic vocalizations in rats handled by a familiar researcher are higher in frequency than those handled by a human unknown to them. These data support the previous findings that rats can remember specific humans and that USVs are an index of social memory in laboratory rats. These studies provide interesting and important information about the rat social learning process. 

Recent Publications
  • Peterson, J. R., Urbano, C. M., & Cooper, B. G. (In Prep). Familiar Handlers Elicit Higher Frequency Ultrasonic Vocalizations in Female Long Evans Rats.Journal of Comparative Psychology.

  • Urbano, C.M., Peterson, J.R., & Cooper, B.G. (2013). Exploring vocal recovery after cranial nerve injury in Bengalese finches. Neuroscience Letters, 534, 112 – 116.

  • Peterson, J. R., Watts, C. R., Morris, J. A., Shelton, J. M., & Cooper, B. G. (2012). Laryngeal Aging and Acoustic Changes in Ultrasonic Vocalizations in the Long Evans Male Rat. Developmental Psychobiology. DOI: 10.1002/dev.21072

  • Secora, K. R., Peterson, J. R., Urbano, C. M., Chung, B., Okanoya, K., & Cooper, B. G. (2012). Syringeal Specialization of Song Production in the Bengalese Finch. PLOS One, 7(3), 1-15.

Recent Conference Presentations
  • Peterson, J. R., & Cooper, B. G. (2012). A longitudinal analysis of age-related acoustic alterations of ultrasonic vocalizations in male Long Evans rats. Poster presentation at the 2012 meeting of Society for Neuroscience in New Orleans, LA.

  • Peterson, J. R., Urbano, C. M., Slaughter, C., & Cooper B. G. (2011). Long-term heterospecific social memory in female Long Evans rats. Poster presentation at the 2011 meeting of Society for Neuroscience in Washington, D.C.

  • Urbano, C. M., Peterson, J. R., & Cooper, B. G. (2011). Lateralized constraints guide, but do not limit, song restructuring in Bengalese finches. Poster presentation at the 2011 meeting of Society for Neuroscience in Washington, D. C.

  • Peterson, J. R., Watts, C., & Cooper, B. G. (2010). Acoustic and temporal changes of ultrasonic vocalizations in aged Long Evans Rats. Presented at the 2010 meeting of Society for Neuroscience in San Diego, California.

  • Secora, K. R., Peterson, J. R., Chung, B., & Cooper, B.G. (2010). Syringeal lateralization of song production in the Bengalese finch. Presented at the 2010 meeting of Society for Neuroscience in San Diego, California.

  • Peterson, J. R., Loris, C., Russo, S., & Cooper, B. (2010). Ultrasonic vocalizations: An index of social interest and frustration in aged rats? Presented at the 2010 annual meeting of the Southwestern Psychological Association. Dallas, TX.