All organisms continuously have to adapt their behavior according to changes in the environment in order to survive. Such experience-driven adaptations are mediated by modifications in brain circuits. We are particularly interested in how brain function changes during learning and memory processes. We focus on classical (Pavlovian) fear conditioning in mice, which is a powerful model to study the neural mechanisms of associative learning and memory formation. The amygdala is one of the key brain structures for the acquisition and storage of fear memory traces. To date, some of the strongest links between synaptic and cellular plasticity and behavioural learning come from studies of sensory inputs to the amygdala, but little is known about other elements of this network. Existing fear memories can be modified by a second learning process called extinction. Extinction memory is thought to suppress fear memory in a state-dependent manner, and depends on a larger brain network comprising the amygdala, hippocampus and medial prefrontal cortex, as well as interactions among these areas.
Our goal is to identify and study molecular, synaptic and cellular substrates of neural circuits in the amygdala and fear-related areas that underlie the acquisition and encoding of fear and extinction memory. Towards this end, we combine a range of techniques including ex-vivo slice electrophysiology (patch-clamp), two-photon imaging, molecular biology, viral gene transfer in vivo, as well as behavioral analysis.
Studying fear and extinction memory not only provides us with an excellent model to understand general principles of memory formation in the brain, but also will provide leads on nervous system dysfunction during inappropriate control of fear behavior in conditions such as human anxiety disorders.