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Sternson Lab

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Research Overview
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We want to understand how neural circuits mediate flexible, goal-directed behaviors. We focus on circuits for specific survival needs that 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 specialized neurons whose activity is sufficient to trick the brain into thinking it is in a physiological need state. This enables a reductionist approach to elucidate circuits, neuronal computations, and motivational principles associated with physiological need states.


Research Approach

We primarily focus on neurons that induce hunger. Our work starts in the hypothalamus and its interactions with a variety of brain areas. We have also developed many tools, especially chemogenetic tools, for investigating cell types in different brain areas. We are currently focused on the problems of cell type specification using RNA-Seq, cell type-specific neural circuit function using opto/chemogenetics, and  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 paradigms to deconstruct the motivational properties of need-sensing neurons.

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Man can do what he wants but he cannot will what he wants (paraphrase, A. Schopenhauer, 1839)

Although our actions are under our control, the motivations underlying our actions are not. To understand the origin of the "will", we are studying the most basic motivations: hunger and thirst.