The goal of the laboratory is to understand the neural circuit basis of higher cognitive functions, which are essential for goal-directed behavior and commonly impaired in psychiatric disorders. Using the mouse as a model enables us to apply a diverse set of tools, including in vivo two-photon imaging, optogenetics, and patch-clamp electrophysiology, to relate neural activity to behavior. We are particularly interested in the prefrontal and cingulate cortices for which there have been relatively few direct neural recording experiments. We recognize the challenges in species differences and behavioral paradigms, so a large part of our effort focuses on developing quantifiable behaviors and studying neural mechanisms that may be generalized. Currently we have several research directions:
Top-down Control»At any moment, our senses are bombarded by all kinds of stimuli. To make sense of and efficiently process sensory information, our brain needs ways to filter the incoming signals: attenuate the unnecessary and focus only the relevant. Our recent results have identified in the mouse cortico-cortical pathways that have characteristics consistent with a functional role in top-down control of sensory processing. The laboratory is following up on this work by investigating the functional organization of the “top” as well as characterizing the information that is carried by the long-range axons to the “down”.
The classic neural signature of the prefrontal cortex is the persistent neural activity during working memory tasks. Such persistent activity has been hypothesized to be the biological substrate for short-term memory, linking perception in the present to decision in the future. For the mouse, we are designing new head-fixed, behavioral tasks that recapitulate salient aspects of the working memory behavior. Current projects take advantage of the imaging, optogenetic, and molecular tools in the mouse to explore how persistent activity is generated and maintained by neuronal ensembles during behavior. [Video
Mouse Models of Psychiatric Disorders»Frontal lobe dysfunction is linked to numerous psychiatric disorders including ADHD, schizophrenia, and depression. Despite the devastating effects of these mental illnesses, we lack a reliable suite of biomarkers and a mechanistic understanding of the cognitive deficits. This is not surprising considering the complexity in both the etiology and the underlying neural circuitry, making any study that correlates these two aspects of a disorder difficult to interpret. We are working on developing chronic imaging solutions that overcome this problem by monitoring the structure and function of neuronal ensembles over time as the disorder progresses.