Circuits for Emotion
Behaviors are motivated by feelings and emotions. Hunger triggers feeding and fear elicits fight or flight behaviors. In the context of complex and changing environments, feelings and emotions need to be regulated to allow for appropriate behavioral responses. For example, hunger has to be ignored if the available food has been learnt to be harmful, or fear of a potential threat needs to be suppressed in a safe environment. In social animals, also recognizing emotions of others and learning through observation shapes emotions and helps to adapt behaviors. To allow for flexible behavior, emotions are thus modulated by information from the body and the environment.
How does the brain integrate feeling states and emotions with cues from the environment and weigh the risks and benefits of an action?
To address this question, our lab is interested in understanding neuronal circuit functions of the insular cortex as part of a wider neuronal network comprising prefrontal and limbic brain structures.
The insular cortex plays important roles in emotion regulation, empathy and social behavior, however, very little is known about the neural circuit mechanisms underlying these functions.
Alterations in insula circuitry and deficiencies in emotion regulation are common traits amongst a number of psychiatric conditions, such as disorders of mood and anxiety, addiction, as well as autism and schizophrenia. A better mechanistic understanding of emotion circuits could thus facilitate the development of novel therapeutic approaches for these debilitating conditions.
To unravel how the insular cortex is organized and achieves its functions, we combine behavioral essays with modern research tools in mice. To watch the activity of ensembles of neurons within the insular cortex while processing emotionally relevant stimuli, we employ in vivo two-photon calcium imaging. The use of transsynaptic viral tracing tools allows us to explore how a given functional microcircuit within the insular cortex is embedded in a wider network of prefrontal, sensory and limbic brain structures. Combining these techniques with optogenetics to remotely control the activity of identified nerve cells in behaving animals, we aim to dissect neuronal circuits implicated in emotion processing from structure to function.