Significant advances have been made in the last few years in understanding the molecular mechanisms supporting neuronal function, including signaling cascades, epigenetic modifications, and changes in transcription. However, nearly all of this work has focused on a few brain areas that are not significantly involved in goal-directed learning, such as the striatum and broader mesocorticolimbic system.
We are invested in understanding the molecular cascades in these regions which support operant learning, motivation, executive function, and the shift between habitual/automatic responses and goal-directed responses. Utilizing optogenetic and chemogenetic approaches, we can further examine how these cascades relate to neuronal conditions which predispose to goal-directed responses versus those that inhibit goal-directed responding, driving impulsive, compulsive, or habitual behaviors instead.
Image: Example of one task we can use to ask these questions, an operant item-recognition test using touchscreen chambers designed for mice.