The human brain is the most complicated known machine in the universe, having 100 billion neurons and 100 trillion connections among those neurons. Understanding how the connections form useful neural circuits is a major goal of modern neuroscience.
The work in my lab focuses on a core question in neuroscience: How is the brain wired to extract information from the environment and convert that information into action? To answer this question, my laboratory studies mice, specifically their olfactory system. The sense of smell is the most important sense for many mammals, including mice. We study how scents from food, predators, or mates trigger activity in specific neural circuits to enable mice to eat, for example, or to avoid being eaten. We think this work will teach us fundamental lessons about how the brain takes information and turns it into action.
To gather this information, our lab both develops new techniques—such as using 3D imaging to characterize the behavior expressed by mice as we expose them to odors—and uses advanced approaches developed by others, such as the remote triggering of neural activity in genetically-modified behaving mice. Through these approaches, we hope to link specific odors to specific neural circuits and to understand how activity coursing through those neural circuits generates innate behaviors.
We believe that our effort to map the neural circuits that underlie innate behaviors will be relevant to understanding how the nervous system solves more complex problems. The structure of the brain has been shaped by demands of our survival, but the brain is also flexible. Although innate behaviors are genetically hardwired into the brain during development, they are not fixed forever. We know that with training, for example, adult animals can learn to modify their innate behavioral responses to odorants. Observations such as these suggest that by characterizing hardwired neural circuits, we can discover principles about how our brain learns to adapt to changes in the environment.
One of the most amazing achievements of humanity is dancing—the use of body language to communicate ideas and emotions. Recently, as part of our work, we have discovered that mice also have body language, and we have used machine-learning techniques to decipher this language. This new technology has allowed us to objectively characterize complex patterns of behavior in mice as we manipulate their genomes or neural circuits, enabling us to, for the first time, quantitatively understand how individual genes or neural circuits influence action. Ultimately, by being able to read the body language of mice, we can better understand how the brain builds patterns of action.
The human brain is full of surprises, and despite our advanced technology, we are just beginning to understand how it works. I love what I do because I never know what I am going to learn next!