Many mammals sense and affect their environment predominantly through innate motor programs for exploration, social interaction, and ingestion; yet, little is known about the neuronal circuits that control these motor programs. Our lab uses molecular, systems, and computational neurobiological techniques to identify specific brainstem motor control modules and to determine how higher-order brain structures engage these modules for innate behaviors. Our research focuses on several themes, which together constitute a systematic approach to interrogate how the brain translates decision-making into action:
(1) Cell-types and functions of brainstem neurons
Key to understanding the organization of brainstem neuronal circuits is understanding the milieu of cell types that comprise them. Our investigations provide a roadmap of the cell types essential for diverse motor and life-sustaining physiological functions.
(2) Descending influences on brainstem motor circuits
The brainstem contains fully functional motor control modules for a number of innate behaviors. To understand how motor control is implemented across a circuit hierarchy, our laboratory investigates how higher-order brain structures interact with these brainstem modules.
(3) Limbic-brainstem interactions for oro-motor learning and behavior
We have recently discovered the importance of the limbic system for shaping newborn suckling. We are investigating how the connections and physiological signaling mechanisms between the limbic system and the brainstem may contribute to learning and decision-making.