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Alex Kwan, PhD

Associate Professor of Psychiatry and of Neuroscience

Research Summary

We are broadly interested in the function of the medial frontal cortex. Many of our experiments involve cellular-resolution optical imaging and head-fixed mouse behavior. We have made progress in two specific areas:

Psychoactive drugs

A feature of many neuropsychiatric disorders is dendritic pathology in the frontal cortex. Because dendrites are sites of synaptic integration and activity-dependent plasticity, their alteration is expected to have a deleterious impact on cortical circuits. By contrast, drugs may target dendrites and harness plasticity mechanisms to restore function. To date, most of our knowledge of dendritic plasticity have come from studies of neuronal cultures and brain slices. In behaving animals, dendritic excitability is strongly influenced by background activity, neuromodulation, and inhibitory inputs. In the lab, we are using systems neuroscience approaches to measure how psychoactive drugs modify cortical microcircuits and dendritic signaling in vivo. Current projects focus on compounds with rapid and long-lasting therapeutic potentials (ketamine, psilocybin), and their potential interactions with risk genes (Shank3, Scn2a).

Flexible decision-making

In a dynamic environment, animals must adjust their action plans to match the behavioral demands. For example, the same sensory stimulus may require different motor responses depending on the context. The mammalian prefrontal cortex is thought to be a central node mediating flexible behavior, however the synaptic and circuit mechanisms remain poorly understood. In the lab, we are adapting classic decision-making tasks for head-fixed mice. These tasks involve switching sensory-response contingencies or uncertain response-outcome relations. We perform optical imaging and perturbation experiments to study the task-related neural dynamics. We use computational models to dissect the choice behavior, for example by fitting reinforcement learning algorithms. Recent studies in the lab have focused on the role of the mouse secondary motor cortex (M2 / MOs) and cingulate cortex (Cg1 / ACAd), medial frontal regions that are involved in binding prior events to current decisions.


Research Interests

Antidepressive Agents; Decision Making; Dendrites; Depressive Disorder; Electrophysiology; Microscopy, Fluorescence; Prefrontal Cortex; Optogenetics

Selected Publications