Our overarching goal is to gain insights into the neurobiological and computational principles of cognition and mental illness. In terms of topics, our approach is multifaceted. Across projects we aim to transform “soft” concepts of cognition into “hard” mathematically tractable metrics of behavior to enable cross-species investigation. This approach makes cognition accessible experimental studies and take advantage of the full arsenal of circuit and molecular neuroscience.
Some current topics
Cross-species computational behavior and psychiatry
Psychiatrists and lay people explain human behavior in terms of unseen entities like impulsivity, desire, laziness, or confidence. Are such concepts useful to understanding the brain, the organ producing the behaviors described? And could we improve on these subjective descriptions to enable psychiatrists to make more accurate diagnoses and empower researchers to study them in animals that cannot tell us how they feel? Addressing these challenges is critical to make progress in both biological psychiatry and cognitive neuroscience.
Coordination and information routing across brain regions
How do brain areas dynamically coordinate their activity to produce coherent and seamless coordination of actions? We are exploring the hypothesis that oscillatory activity in the theta frequency range (4-12Hz) can serve as the basis for inter-areal communication. Our initial explorations focus on the coordination of sniffing, whisking, and hippocampal oscillations. Longer-term we’re interested in understanding the principles by which neuronal ensembles interact across areas.
Functions of distinct interneuron subtypes in cortical dynamics and behavior
Linking identified cell types with network dynamics and behavioral function has been a major challenge in neuroscience. Taking advantage of optogenetic techniques and combining them with electrophysiological recordings in freely moving mice enable us to reliably activate and simultaneously record from genetically identified classes of neurons. Our long-term goal is to causally link the activity of specific neural types and pathways to behavioral decisions.
Neural representation of social decisions and rewards
We would like to understand how social information is represented, computed and used by mice. In rodents, a main source of information for social decision-making and reward valuation is the chemosensory system. These circuits tend to be shallow, from sensory input to motor actions, and highly stereotyped, enabling the systematic dissection of this system.
Neuromodulators can reconfigure circuit operations and we have been interested in identifying their computations. Our focused has been the cholinergic basal forebrain, a vitally important yet poorly understood neuromodulatory system that is thought to play significant roles in cognitive functions. Recent studies have expanded into the modularity of midbrain dopamine system and its coordination with the cholinergic system.
Brain body interactions
The intimate connection between the brain and the body has long been recognized in popular culture as well as by mystics. The brain and all organ systems of the body evolved together to support the survival of an organism. We have begun a new line of research to explore brain body interactions, starting studies on the neural control of cancer and cancer-induced behavioral changes. We aim to identify cancer-induced neuroinflammation and motivational deficits.