The Stern Lab studies how learning mechanisms and diverse environmental stimuli alter innate brain circuits to drive both adaptive and maladaptive behavioral outcomes.
As we go through life, people and animals encounter a variety of stimuli that provide information about the world around them and inform them about how to change their future behavior. Although some decisions are consciously made, much of this learning is unconscious and implicit. With state-of-the-art technologies ranging from molecular profiling to optogenetics and calcium imaging, our lab will aim to decipher the neural mechanisms, from circuits to molecules, underlying learning processes that drive complex motivated behaviors, including feeding, aggression and social behaviors.
Feeding behavior, in particular, is a useful model for studying this question. Feeding is ideally homeostatic and innate – organisms should eat when they are hungry and stop when they are sated. However, obesity and eating disorders are prevalent worldwide and are not typically caused by monogenetic disorders, but rather by a combination of genetic and environmental factors. What, then, are the environmental factors that lead to maladaptive feeding behaviors and how does top-down control of feeding occur?
In our previous work we showed that overconsumption in response to learned cues requires a circuit from the insular cortex to the central amygdala that suppresses homeostatic feeding signals. We also showed that acute environmental stress leads to sustained decreases in consumption through a lateral septum to lateral hypothalamus circuit. Our future work will continue to explore these questions while also developing novel behavioral models for understanding complex feeding behaviors underlying binge eating disorder and anorexia.