Our Research Interests
It is a long-term goal of Neuroscience to understand how the activity of neurons in the brain of animals gives rise to sensory perception, and purposeful behaviors. Neurons communicate with specific partner neurons in highly complex circuits, via both local- and long-range synaptic connections. The strength of information transfer at synapses is plastic and changes in an experience-dependent manner. This synaptic plasticity is thought to underlie the ability of animals and humans to learn from previous experiences.
To trace the relationship between plasticity at specific synapses on the one hand, and a learned behavior on the other hand, our lab uses the paradigm of fear conditioning, a form of threat learning. During threat – or fear learning, an innocuous sensory event like a tone (the conditioned stimulus or CS) acquires an emotional meaning when it is paired with a mild painful event (the unconditioned stimulus or US). Fear learning is conserved in the animal kingdom and enables animals to predict, and avoid potentially harmful situations from past experiences.
We use optogenetic tools in behaving mice, virus-based approaches for tracing synaptic circuits, and functional optogenetic mapping of synaptic connections, to learn more about the circuits, and the synaptic plasticity that underlie fear learning. We are especially interested in the integration of synaptic pathways that carry information about the CS and the US. The insular cortex is known to process multisensory information, including auditory- and somatosensory stimuli from the outside and inside of the body. Furthermore, the posterior insular cortex is known to make synaptic connections to various substructures of the amygdala, a brain area well-known to be involved in valence coding. Accordingly, our lab is studying the role of the insular cortex in fear learning.