The goal of the Datta laboratory is to address how the brain extracts information from the environment and converts that information into action.
Animals in the real world have to adapt to changes in sensory cues on timescales of 1s-10s of milliseconds with behavioral responses organized at timescales of 10s-100s of milliseconds. Somehow, from these complex and inter-dependent sensorimotor dynamics, arise adaptive patterns of moment-to-moment action that enable animals to interact with the environment in a meaningful manner. Revealing how the brain addresses this challenge requires understanding how neural codes for sensation and action are built, how they interact, and how they are decoded to facilitate the generation of organized and goal-oriented behaviors that evolve coherently over time.
The main hypothesis of the laboratory is that we can gain leverage on this problem by studying the sensory and motor circuits that underlie stimulus-driven innate behaviors. Given that olfaction is the primary sense used by most animals to communicate with their environment, we focus on characterizing those circuits that enable animals to detect and behaviorally respond to scents from food, predators and mates. These circuits are highly constrained by evolution and exhibit stereotyped anatomic and genetic architectures, which significantly facilitates their experimental interrogation. Sensory information propagating through this system can drive complex solitary and social behaviors, alter neuroendocrine states and act as unconditioned stimuli to facilitate learning. The motor behaviors elicited by odors both in the real world and in the laboratory are rich in dynamics, and offer a powerful window into how the brain creates adaptive patterns of action.
Although our perspective has been deeply shaped by ethology, we work in the lab and not the field. Therefore, much of our work is about bringing the field to the lab — studying mice in as naturalistic a context as we possibly can — in the belief that understanding the brain requires exploring those purposes for which the brain evolved. We use the entire armamentarium of modern neuroscience techniques, ranging from molecular genetics to machine learning, from population imaging to 3D behavioral imaging. Our work has identified new molecular receptors for ethologically-relevant odors, novel circuits that couple together innate and learned behaviors, organizational principles that govern the organization of sensory information in brain networks, and an underlying syntactical structure to action that is organized on the millisecond timescale, is explicitly represented in striatum, and enables the generation of sequenced innate behaviors. Current work in the lab focuses on decoding — prying open the circuits that choose which action an animal expresses at any given moment in time, and asking how sensory information percolates into those circuits to influence the global statistics of behavior — and on better understanding the related problem of how action influences sensation. Our hope is that by using ethology and olfaction as levers, we can gain purchase on the fundamental problem of how the brain enables animals to interact with the world.