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The Neurobiology of Need. We are interested in the origin of our most fundamental motivations – behaviors that are physiologically imperative for survival. Our lab combines advanced molecular and systems neuroscience approaches in order to understand the neurobiology of survival needs such as hunger and thirst.
How do neural circuits that are specialized for specific survival needs mediate flexible, goal-directed behaviors? Survival needs are under strong selective pressure, nevertheless satisfying these needs requires flexible behaviors in a complex and dynamic environment. We simplify this problem by starting from small sets of neurons whose activity is sufficient to trick the brain into thinking it is in a physiological need state. Our ultimate goal is to elucidate circuits, neuronal computations, and motivational principles associated with physiological need states.
We primarily focus on neurons that induce hunger. Our work starts in the hypothalamus and its interactions with a variety of subcortical forebrain, midbrain, and hindbrain areas. We have developed and refined many tools to investigate cell types in different brain areas. We are currently focused on the problems of cell type specification using RNASeq, cell type-specific neural circuit function using opto/chemogenetics, and developing deep-brain calcium imaging approaches that can be integrated with all of the above information. These technical approaches are pursued in the context of behavioral testing paradigms to deconstruct the motivational properties of need-sensing neurons.