Our Research Interests
It is a long-term goal of Neuroscience to understand how 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 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). Threat 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 connections in circuits, and functional optogenetic mapping of synaptic connections, to learn more about the circuits, and the synaptic plasticity that underlie threat learning. We are especially interested in the integration of synaptic pathways that carry information about the CS and the US. The amygdala is important for threat learning, and integrates CS- and US information; however, the synaptic pathways that carry US information to the amygdala are only little studied. We could recently show that the Insular cortex provides US information to the lateral amygdala, and thereby can initiate associative plasticity in the amygdala (read more). Accordingly, our main research efforts now address how insular – amygdala circuits compute the negative valence of light painful events, and how these circuits store and retrieve threat memories.