Animals in the wild engage with the environment through complex self-directed behaviors. Brains then build internal cognitive models that enable useful predictions about the statistical structure of the world. However, the role that naturalistic behavior plays in shaping cognitive models has remained unclear.
The Datta lab wishes to address how the brain uses sensation to inform action, how the brain uses action to more effectively sense the world, and how the brain integrates information about sensation and action to meaningfully interact with the environment. The main hypothesis of the laboratory is that we can gain leverage on this set of problems by studying neural circuits that underlie spontaneously-generated behaviors in unrestrained animals — in other words, by exploring neural circuits in which sensation and ongoing action are necessarily intertwined. Given that olfaction is the primary sense used by most animals to communicate with their environment, we focus on characterizing odor information as it propagates through the olfactory system to drive complex solitary and social behaviors and facilitate learning. Conversely, we ask how motor systems interpret organized representations of the sensory environment to compose ongoing, moment-to-moment behavioral sequences that aid in understanding the sensory environment and ultimately allow animals to survive in a complex world.
We use the entire toolbox 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, 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 and is explicitly implemented by corticostriatial circuits. Current work in the lab focuses on integrating our sensory and behavioral toolkits to probe how behavior helps sensory circuits build accurate models of the environment, and to better understand how sensorimotor dynamics reflect predictions and are updated during learning. Our hope is that by using ethology as a lever, we can gain purchase on the fundamental problem of how the brain enables animals to interact with the world.