Overall goal of the lab
Avoiding danger is one of the most essential and conserved set of behaviors, observed in most species from crabs to primates. To optimize an animal’s survival, avoidance responses need to be flexible and adaptable to the current context. However, the neural circuit elements that allow for this flexibility in behavioural output are largely unknown. Our aim is to identify how information about the environment and state can adapt behavioural decision making.
To delineate the circuits and mechanisms that allow animals to adjust their behavior to context, we use circuits through the superior colliculus (SC) as a model system. We label cell-type specific inputs and outputs using rabies and other viral tools to study the mechanisms that allow for adaptation of visually-guided innate aversive behaviors. Using standardized visual stimuli, we characterize innate behaviors of rodents, and Neuropixels probes and calcium imaging enable us to record neural correlates of stimulus, state and behavior in-vivo. In addition to mice (Mus), we use different species of Peromyscus (deer mice) and Rhabdomys (African striped mice) to investigate how innate behaviors and the underlying circuits evolved in different ecological niches.
Our two Peromyscus species as seen by Fosca Zoccolan.
ERC-StG "FLEXIN" - Context-dependent flexibility in innate behaviours and their underlying neural circuitry
Objective 1: Determine the impact of context on innate behaviours.
1) Ambient light: An external and transient change in context with very important implications and meanings for all mammals. We believe that ambient light is of particular interest because it can signify short time periods (changes in light during the day), longer time periods (seasonal changes in light), weather conditions which may change how easily detectable an individual is or whether their predators are actively searching for food, but it can also be actively changed through movement from and into differently lit spaces.
2) Time of day (circadian rhtythm): Circadian rhtythm is an internal transient context. We choose to study how the time of day affects innate behaviours because of two main reasons. First, it allows us to disentangle impacts of time and light by investigating behaviours at different times of the day with matching or non-matching light conditions. Second, different times of the day are linked to internal hormonal states but also to expectations of how likely it is to find food, be detected by a predator etc.
3) Ecological niche (evolution): Changes in ecological niches are an external contextual factor that can lead to permanent modulation of innate behaviors through genetically encoded differences in the underlying circuit. We want to know whether such permanent adaptation leads to similar types of behaviour changes as transient changes in context.
Objective 3: Dissect the mechanisms of neural and behavioural adjustments to context.