Ph.D. Neuroscience, University of California, San Francisco
How are different brain functions integrated into a unified whole?
Neuroscience has had great success at characterizing the functions of many individual brain areas, but brain areas don't function in isolation. Often, we are simultaneously sensing, moving, remembering, and predicting. These and other functions can't be effectively accomplished by a segregated confederation of autonomous functional modules, but rather must be executed as a tightly unified whole. How diverse brain systems unify information across sensory, motor, mnemonic, and cognitive modalities is a core mystery of neuroscience. The most primal form of cross-modal unification is active sensing -- how we move shapes what we perceive, and what we perceive tells us how to move. This closed loop between sensation and action is shared by all motile organisms, and may be the evolutionary precursor to the more sophisticated forms of integration implemented by the human brain. My lab studies the neural mechanisms underlying active sensing, the strategic interplay between sensation and movement. This fundamental interaction pervades the function of all brain systems, and is known to go awry in several neurological disorders including autism.
In order to gain experimental access to neural mechanisms of active sensing, we study the mouse olfactory system. Mice are champion smellers, and they rely on olfaction for sensing food, mates, and predators. Furthermore, they control their access to the olfactory environment with their breath, to which they synchronize movements of their body and whiskers during sniffing. Given their olfactory prowess and their sniffing skills, mouse olfaction provides an excellent model system for studying how sensory and motor information are combined and situated within cognitive maps. Lastly, mice are amenable to an arsenal of experimental tools that is unrivalled among mammalian model organisms, allowing us to investigate questions that are not accessible in other organisms. My lab employs cutting edge behavioral, genetic, optical, electrophysiological, and computational tools to pursue our questions.
Research in my lab seeks to clarify how different functions are coordinated across the brain to enable adaptive behavior. To advance our knowledge on cross-modal integration, I study how sensation and action interact during active olfaction by mice. Sniffing is the central theme of my work.