Chemosensory coding and decision-making
When interacting with their environment animals constantly have to make decisions. These decisions usually aim at maximizing reward while avoiding negative consequences such as energy costs, pain, or long-term disadvantages. Faced with a choice animals consider and integrate several parameters or contexts such as their internal, physiological state as well as other external stimuli. We aim at identifying the neural circuitry underpinning context-specific decision-making. In particular, we study internal state-dependent processing of chemosensory stimuli – odors and tastes.
While we start to understand how neural networks control behavior in response to external sensory stimuli such as odors, it is more and more appreciated that internal signals such as the physiological state act on the nervous system and ultimately impact on the translation of sensory stimuli into behavior. For instance, a hungry animal will react strongly to sensory cues relating to food and consequently initiate food searching and feeding. In a healthy animal this behavior secures survival; a disturbed interaction between metabolism and neuronal processing, however, can have serious consequences on animal health, including different forms of eating disorders. Therefore, unraveling how nervous system and physiology communicate at the behavioral, neuronal, and genetic levels may hold great medical, societal, and also economical benefits.
Our work addresses the neuronal mechanisms of how different physiological states change the sensory perception of odors and tastes, the two main modalities for quality assessment of food: Why does food smell and taste better when we are hungry? How do animals chose the right food dependent on their physiological needs? How does pregnancy influence the sense of taste and smell?
We hope to answer these questions at three levels: (i) behavior, (ii) neural circuits, (iii) and genes. To this aim, we combine single animal and group behavioral analysis, in vivo functional imaging, optogenetics, and electrophysiology with state of the art genetic methods to understand how context influences neural processing and ultimately behavior.