Peering Into the Social Brain
Our group is using molecular, genetic and electrophysiological techniques to explore the molecular and neuronal basis of instinctive social behaviors in the mouse.
We are pursuing several projects at the molecular, cellular and systems levels in order to investigate the architecture and functional logic of neuronal circuits underlying social behaviors. The key questions we are addressing are: What are the sensory signals that trigger specific social behaviors? What are the brain areas involved in processing these signals and generating species- and sex-specific behaviors such as aggression, mating, parental behavior, defensive behavior? What is the molecular identity of the neurons involved, how are they connected to each other, and how are they modulated by the animal physiological state and its previous social experience? And finally, how do circuits underlying sex-specific behaviors differ in the male and female brains?
In earlier work, we uncovered the first fundamental principles underlying the function of the vomeronasal system, the key brain circuitry that orchestrates social responses in many mammals. In striking findings, our work demonstrated that functional neuronal circuits underlying male and female-specific behaviors co-exist in the brain of both sexes, a result that challenged a half century-old textbook dogma according to which sex-specific behavior circuits are exclusively represented in the brain of a given sex.
Recently, we uncovered a set of hypothalamic neurons that governs paternal behavior in mice and deconstructed the organization of neuronal circuits leading to the control of motor, motivational, endocrine and social components of parenting. Similarly, we uncovered neuronal populations and associated brain circuits that control other instinctive functions such as social drive and sickness behaviors. Parallel to these efforts, we are performing imaging of deep brain structures in awake behaving mice engaged social interaction and we use a variety of in situ and single cell transcriptional methods to establish a functional profiling of adult and developing brain areas involved in social behaviors.