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Tervo Lab

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Imagine playing chess against your nemesis. You sit in front of the white pieces, recall your planned opening, and rest your gaze on your opponent. Her face is relaxed as her pupils expand. You tap the clock, moving a3. She responds e5, hesitantly. You smirk, replying h3. Her eyes widen, eyebrows bounce, mouth grins. She moves d5 and punches the clock. You slow, knowing that she caught your gambit: The Creepy Crawly Formation.

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This imagined scene narrates your possible thoughts as you play an unusual opening in an ancient game, thoughts that combine your knowledge of the game with your inferences about what you believe your opponent knows and what she intends to do. Such deliberations go beyond this regulated board of restricted moves and defined goals. We observe others and infer their mental states all the time; it is as natural as breathing and as effortless as seeing. I aim to understand how rats classify and predict other rats’ actions and decide how to respond to them.

Our research agenda has three aims:

Aim #1: Computational ethology.

In a laboratory arena, we track the movement and classify the actions of multiple interacting rats. We aim to extend this characterization to a more ethological setting, where we continuously monitor rats as they live together in an ethological burrow. We aim to enrich this description with more unsupervised learning of rats’ actions in a social setting. This characterization will serve as the foundational computational ethology: a continuous classification of the actions of each rat and the dependence of each rats’ actions on others.

Aim #2: Neural correlates of other’s actions and states.

Fortified with this behavioral characterization, we measure neural activity from the frontal cortex of rats using wireless chronic electrophysiology. We aim to test the hypothesis that the frontal cortex contains neural representations of others’ actions.

Aim #3: Social neural circuits.

We aim to provide causal evidence of the role of specific frontal regions, afferent and efferent frontal cortical projections, and molecularly defined frontal cortical cell-types in social decision-making in the natural setting described above. Using wireless optogenetics and electrophysiology we will test if observed neural representations of others’ actions and others’ states are confined to specific subcircuits. Using wireless optogenetics and transgenic rats we will attempt to see if perturbing the neural activity in these subcircuits alters a rats’ actions.

In 1871, Darwin specified two evolutionary forces that design living things: natural and social selection. Although natural selection has clearly imprinted the statistics of the inanimate and vegetative worlds on brain function, social selection is as influential a designer. In the Tervo lab, established in early 2021, we aim to characterize the neural circuit primitives of social decision-making that are central to social interaction, with the goal of discovering the neural basis of how we infer the mental states and predict the actions of others.