Our brain is responsible for all our perceptions, thoughts and actions. Despite the incredible array of processes the brain performs - from memory to emotion - its elementary units of function are the nerve cell and the synaptic junction. How is it that a collection of neurons and their synapses gives rise to all of animal and human behavior?
In mammals and especially in humans, the cerebral cortex is an area of the brain that is crucially involved in nearly all cognitive functions. Individual neurons in the cortex can make over 10,000 connections with other brain cells. The precise pattern of connections between a local group of neurons in the cortex gives rises to its elementary unit of computation - the cortical microcircuit.
The goal of our laboratory is to reveal the neural basis of perception. More specifically, we want to understand exactly how cortical microcircuits process sensory information to drive behavior. While decades of research have carefully outlined how individual neurons extract specific features from the sensory environment, the cellular and synaptic mechanisms that permit ensembles of cortical neurons to actually process sensory information and generate perceptions are largely unknown.
Addressing this fundamental question of modern neuroscience requires working at both the cellular and system-wide level to assess how populations of neurons cooperate to encode information, generate perceptions, and execute behavioral decisions. Towards this end, we monitor and and then manipulate specific subsets of genetically identified neurons in awake behaving mice to quantitatively determine their contribution to sensory processing and behavior. By turning neurons 'on' and 'off' using optogenetic and pharmacogenetic approaches, we can identify groups of cortical neurons that are both necessary and sufficient for specific neural computations. By complementing our in vivo work with detailed analysis of synaptic connectivity and network dynamics in vitro, we hope to arrive at a more complete understanding for how neural circuits in our brain support sensation, cognition, and action. Our lab is also developing a suite of novel optical and genetic approaches to manipulate neural circuits in the intact brain and at far greater resolution than is possible with current techniques. These new tecniques will allow us to address fundamental questions about sensory computation and perception that have as yet eluded investigation.