Research

We live in a dynamic, and at times unpredictable environment. In order to maximize our use of the environment, we must be able to generate both novel and predictable behaviors to engage with the world around us. Our lab is interested in the cellular and genetic mechanisms that drive novel and innate behaviors, and how organisms sense and adjust to environmental variability.

Individuality and the Sources of Behavioral Novelty

Our response to the world is not simply the sum of what our sensory organs detect, but also how our brain chooses to represent these observations, and act upon them. Unlike simple reflexes, the majority of our behaviors are governed by an internal representation of the external world that is highly variable. In short, we are always thinking. Therefore, a significant challenge with predicting behavior is that our perception of the world is dynamic, rendering many behaviors unpredictable. Understanding the functional underpinnings of how internal dynamics arise in complex brains is limited. However, dynamic internal states also influence perception and behavior in simple animals such as Caenorhabditis elegans. It is currently the only organism where we have a detailed map of every neuron and synapse, as well as a detailed cellular map of neurotransmitters and a variety of other neuromodulators. Using a variety of genetic and optogenetic tools at our disposal, we can simultaneously manipulate and monitor the activity of every neuron in the brain. This exquisite ability to manipulate specific neurons in a fully mapped brain makes C. elegans an ideal organism to understand the complexity of resting state dynamics in a reduced system. Our group’s goal is to understand how neural circuits generate resting state dynamics on different timescales, and how these states influence perception and behavior. Understanding this process will provide a foundation for understanding the learning process, and the principles that govern how behavioral novelty arises and adapts to the environment.

 

Calcium Imaging

 

Optogenetics

 

Complex Behaviors Over Long Timescales

Complex behaviors often require a sequence of internal and external cues that move the behavior forward. Our lab uses the orb-weaving behavior of the spider Uloborus diversus to understand how neuronal networks can encode a complex sequence of behaviors. Orb web construction is particularly interesting because unlike many other types of animal architecture, orb webs are neither a displacement of mass (burrowing), nor the accumulation of mass around an individual (nesting). It is the creation of a geometric abstraction in space. Orb-weavers do not use their vision for web-construction, and are thought to use path integration and spatial memory to map out their environment and influence their decisions. By using a combination of behavioral, neuronal, and genetic approaches, we hope to understand how this behavior is encoded and adjusts to environmental input.