The heart of our approach to research is to triangulate on our questions of interest using concerted electrophysiological, behavioral, and computational methods.  That is, our electrophysiological studies are designed to help us understand the circuitry enabling natural behaviors, and our theoretical modeling strives to understand how such physiological systems can underlie both simple behavioral capabilities as well as complex behavior in natural contexts.   Accordingly, the projects listed below are fairly intertwined with one another.  That said, the listed projects provide a fair overview of the different questions and technical approaches that are currently being used in the lab.

Why do we focus on the olfactory system?  Perhaps the main reason is because the olfactory system is a microcosm of the most interesting questions in neuroscience.  The olfactory bulb, in particular, is a morphologically isolated telencephalic cortical structure.  It receives direct input from primary sensory neurons, such that sensory input can be studied at a reduced, mechanistic, physical level comparable to studying the retina or the cochlear nucleus.  It transforms this sensory input across a single principal synapse (although with lots of interneurons contributing to this transformation), and exports this transformed sensory information to several other regions of the brain.  However, the olfactory bulb also receives rich top-down neuromodulatory inputs, and is affected by complex physiological state variables (such as stress and hunger), in ways comparable to much “higher” centers in other sensory systems.  That is, the construction of meaningful odor representations occurs within a much more compact neural network than, for example, in the visual system, where the construction of meaningful visual images requires a great deal more computation across multiple regions of the brain.  Essentially, we can study and interrelate neuronal biophysics and meaningful, quasi-cognitive representations within the same, reasonably well-described, experimentally tractable neuronal network.

Lewis Thomas, in his essay On Smell, wrote:  “I should think we might fairly gauge the future of biological science, centuries ahead, by estimating the time it will take to reach a complete, comprehensive understanding of odor. It may not seem a profound enough problem to dominate all the life sciences, but it contains, piece by piece, all the mysteries.”