The nervous system is remarkably complex and little is known about how the brain coordinates complex behavioral outputs. Neurological and psychiatric disorders are leading causes of health problems in modern societies, and they arise from malfunction of the nervous system in coordinating such behaviors. These conditions are devastating and the mechanisms behind their pathophysiology are largely unsolved.
Our lab aims to identify the cellular, molecular and circuit-level mechanisms that play a role in behavior. Focusing on animal models (mostly mice), we have been applying and inventing a variety of tools to manipulate cell function in combination with electrophysiological, biochemical, morphological and behavioral analyzes. Our view is that the brain mechanisms involved in decision-making and executive functions (the set of mechanisms responsible to regulate and organize flexible goal-directed behaviors) are evolutionarily conserved and phylogenetically old.
The specific research directions of the Dietrich Lab include:
1. Cellular mechanisms of neuron function. The brain rapidly adapts to changes in the environment to guide behavior decisions. To date, we do not understand how these processes are integrated at the cellular level. We have previously shown that neurons in the hypothalamus display rapid adaptations to varying environmental conditions. In the Dietrich Lab, we exploit this system to study novel mechanisms involved in flexible neuron function. We are combining cell-specific sequencing technologies with in vivo imaging to disentangle the cellular pathways relevant to neuron function. Our work will lead to the discovery of novel mechanisms used by neurons to integrate information to guide behavior decisions.
2. Mechanisms of behavior control. The Dietrich Lab is studying mouse behaviors at different developmental ages, to understand the most primitive mechanisms involved in behavior control. A main direction of the lab is to understand the role of neuroendocrine signaling via neuropeptide release in primitive forms of behavior and how this is translated to more complex computations involved in decision-making. Using these paradigms, we expect to reveal novel forms of communication between neural cells to implement behavior control beyond the century-old model based on neuronal connectivity.
3. Understanding mammalian behavior in dynamic environments. The view of our lab is that studying mouse behavior in social settings in more naturalistic conditions will reveal a much more flexible, dynamic and complex nature of specific brain circuits in control of behavior. We are exploring this multitasking nature of neurons by studying mouse behavior in social groups during extended periods of time. By testing in the lab behaviors that were previously only possible in the field, we aim to identify novel neuronal circuits that are relevant for the control of many diverse behaviors, an essential step towards elucidating the mechanisms underlying brain functions.
We are always seeking motivated individuals to join us on these challenges. Our mission is to provide the best training we can to our lab members so they can accomplish their research and life goals.