The brain allows animals to successfully interact with a natural world that is rich with opportunity and rife with danger. These interactions are mediated by sensation and movement, which are used by animals to learn about their environment and to make useful predictions about the future. The goal of the Datta lab is to reveal how the brain composes natural behaviors that are endowed with purpose and meaning.
Animals engage with the world through structured movement: think of a hungry mouse rustling through leaves on a forest floor to find food, or of a peacock rattling its train to attract a mate. These natural behaviors — often pre-specified by evolution, but also flexibly adapted based upon context and experience — are built by the brain out of simpler behavioral elements that are placed into meaningful, fluid sequences. This poses, in each moment, a new challenge for the brain: to decide what to do next. These decisions are often guided by obvious imperatives, like finding food or scaring off a rival. Indeed, much of traditional neuroscience has focused on understanding how animals maximize rewards (or minimize punishments) through behavior. But when we watch animals behave in the wild — or think about the sorts of behaviors we as humans generate during most of our lives — it becomes clear than many actions are not driven by explicit goals or problems facing us in the present. Instead, much of what most animals spend their time doing is exploring — using movement and their senses to better understand the world around them.
We in the Datta lab embrace the perspective of the ethologists: if we are to understand how the brain works, we should ask of it questions that reflect the purpose for which it was designed. We therefore ask about brain function in experimental settings where mice are free to behave (in all three dimensions) without restraint or experimenter-imposed task structure. We explore how the brain builds the sequential behaviors that let mice explore both simple and complex environments — at timescales that range from minutes to a lifetime — and address how genes, sensory cues, affordances and social partners influence the structure and meaning of behavior. Furthermore, because so much of behavior is about collecting information, we pay particular attention to the olfactory system, the most important sense for a rodent, one essential for nearly every aspect of its survival in the real world. We ask how the mouse brain encodes information about smells at each neural station responsible for smell, from the peripheral sensors for odors to the deep recesses of the allocortex where smell information touches emotion, memory and cognition, and identify mechanisms that allow experience to reshapes these circuits and allow animals to learn. And we put action and sensation together by exploring neurobehavioral relationships in complex environments designed to dynamically challenge animals over long timescales.
Our research program sits at the intersection of molecular genetics, systems neuroscience and neuroethology, and accordingly we take advantage of an interdisciplinary toolkit including modern techniques — such as functional imaging, optogenetics, cell fate mapping and single-cell sequencing — and approaches of our own making — such as machine learning-based characterization of mouse body language. It is our hope that by exploring neural circuits in which sensation and ongoing action are necessarily intertwined — and 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.