Section on Behavioral Neuroscience
Welcome to the Section on Behavioral Neuroscience. We are interested in brain mechanisms that control goal-directed behavior. Our focus is on executive function, a term used to describe the organization of several cognitive capacities such as attention, memory, and inhibitory control, into coherent actions that are crucial for survival in both animals and humans. Impairments in executive function plague patients with neurodegenerative disorders (e.g. Alzheimer’s disease) and chronic mental illnesses (e.g. schizophrenia), often even after the acute symptoms of these disorders subside. These behavioral deficits, which can include inattention, impaired memory, poor decision-making, perseveration, impulsivity and social disinhibition, can severely compromise a person’s quality of life. Since current pharmacotherapies fail to improve these symptoms, we must gain an improved understanding of the underlying circuits so that we can develop molecular and genetic strategies to restore normal function. This is an important goal for behavioral neuroscience.
In the laboratory, our approach is to dissect executive function into its behavioral components in animal models, and to examine how large-scale neural circuits contribute to each component. Our main points of focus in the brain are the prefrontal cortex, thalamus, and temporal lobe. The prefrontal cortex is well known to play an important role in executive function, with different subregions contributing to working memory, response inhibition, and the direction of attention. The best-studied aspects of thalamic function relate to its role as a sensory relay. However, it has become increasingly apparent that the thalamus plays a much more comprehensive role in cognition. The hippocampal region of the temporal lobe, while most closely associated with memory function, has recently been implicated in aspects of executive function, possibly through its dense innervation of the prefrontal cortex. Together, the prefrontal cortex, thalamus, and hippocampal formation steer multiple aspects of human cognition, including not only executive behavior but also socioemotional behavior. Our research program places particular emphasis on understanding the relationship between executive dysfunction and socioemotional dysregulation.
Our lab is located on the 2nd floor of the Edward Porter Neuroscience Research Center (Building 35A) located within the main Bethesda campus of the National Institutes of Health. Our recently renovated lab space comprises a full complement of state-of-the-art equipment to characterize behavior with automated precision and to analyze neural tissue using high quality fluorescence microscopy.