We dissect the neuronal circuits underlying visual processing and perception, spatial navigation, and cognitive control.
The complexity of the mammalian brain is the result of millions of years of evolution. Over time, new brain areas started to achieve or supersede functions originally performed by older brain regions. However, newer structures did not merely replace older neural centres but rather integrated with them, increasing circuit complexity. A fundamental question in neuroscience is what roles do functionally similar, ancient and modern brain regions play in adaptive behaviours? And further, how are these evolutionary distinct, yet coexisting, neural pathways integrated? How do these parallel systems interact to generate the great variety that characterizes the behavioural repertoire of mammals?
Our lab addresses these questions using the visual system as a model. Mammals have two coexisting brain structures that, together, process visual information: the evolutionarily ancient “superior colliculus”, which mammals share with the other vertebrates, and the phylogenetically newer “visual cortex”. (Beltramo & Scanziani, Science, 2019; Beltramo, Science, 2020). We aim to understand the relative contribution of these parallel visual pathways to behaviours that promote survival, so-called “adaptive behaviours”.
Visual circuits for instinctive behaviours and spatial navigation
Visually-evoked innate defensive responses, such as freezing upon detection of distant predators, critically reduce the probability of being eaten. Equally essential for survival is the ability to skillfully navigate in an ever-changing environment, creating neural “spatial maps” of the world based on visual landmarks and optic flow. Our lab studies the relative functions of the ancient superior colliculus and the modern visual cortex in controlling innate defensive behaviours and visually-based spatial navigation.
Sensory processing in stress-induced anxiety
Adaptive behaviours are specific reactions that have been positively selected during evolution because they increase survival chances. However, many of these protective responses to the possible presence of danger are susceptible to dysregulation. Unregulated or “out of control” adaptive behaviours can become maladaptive and underlie several mental illnesses, including anxiety and post-traumatic stress disorder. We study the pathogenesis of stress-induced anxiety behaviours in the early stages of sensory processing. We aim to understand how pathological changes in the early neural representations of “dangerous” and “safe” sensory stimuli influence the occurrence of anxiety disorders.