The general aim of the lab is to study how sensory information is coded and processed in the brain to guide behavior, and how learning through experience is incorporated into this process. Specifically, my lab studies how taste information is processed by a complex network of interconnected nuclei (including the amygdala, taste cortex and pre-frontal cortex) to support basic taste related behaviors (e.g. “To spit or to swallow?”), and what aspects of this processing is changed with experience (“I would never eat clams again after the stomachache I had last night, Ohyyyy!”). My research tackles the basic, but still unclear, questions of how sensory (taste) information is coded, passed, processed and stored in the context of adaptive behavior. Some of the research specific questions are as follows:
- How the amygdala, and specifically the basolateral amygdala (BLA), is involved in shaping cortical neuronal ensemble dynamics during sensory processing
- How the BLA influences gustatory cortex (GC) ensemble taste processing during acquisition of emotional learning
- How learning-related BLA and GC responses change when synaptic plasticity in one brain region is inhibited during memory retention
To study these questions we employ a combination of extracellular electrophysiology, optogenetics and complex but robust set of learning paradigms in rats. We employ sophisticated computational and statistical models such as hidden Markov models (HMM) to look beyond single neurons responses and into the level of the ensemble state dynamics, where previous studies (Moran and Katz, 2014) have shown good correlation with behavior. These ensemble-level states were found not only to code taste identity better than single neuron level coding, but also to better follow the experimentally induced changes to behavior towards a similar taste. With this combination of powerful tools we hope to shed light on the true link between neural activity and behavior.