Circuit Neuroscience

Understanding the brain remains one of science’s greatest challenges. What are the molecular mechanisms that process and store information within neural circuits? And how do activity patterns in neural circuits give rise to perception and behaviour? Neuroscience has traditionally tackled these questions either at the molecular level, focusing on the biochemistry and cell biology of single neurons or synapses, or at the systems level, seeking to correlate neural activity with perception or behaviour. Now, using genetic model organisms, these two approaches are merging in the new field of circuit neuroscience. Exploiting genetic tools, we can identify, describe, and manipulate the specific circuits and molecules that are relevant for a chosen behaviour. And with powerful new tools in optogenetics, imaging, and electrophysiology, we can measure and manipulate neural activity within genetically-defined circuits and causally link them to behaviour. At the IMP, we have assembled a cluster of research groups that apply these approaches in efforts to provide mechanistic explanations for a variety of behaviours in genetic model organisms ranging from worms and flies to mice. Their research is stimulated through close contacts with other research groups working in molecular and cell biology, computer science, physics or engineering, and is supported by outstanding in-house scientific and technical services.

Haubensak Group

Emotions evolved to tag what is important and guide behavioral responses necessary for successful navigating through complex environments. To investigate their underlying neural basis, we apply molecular-, pharmaco-, and optogenetic methods and map neural circuits for aversive and appetitive behaviors in mice. Combining these manipulations with electrophysiological methods, we explore how these circuits form and recall emotional memory and execute behavioral responses. Assisted by computational approaches, we aim at understanding how circuit activity correlates with emotional states and behavior and hope to uncover basic circuit mechanisms of emotional processing.

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Keays Group

Cells and Circuits in Magnetoreception
It is common belief that there are only five senses. This biological myth overlooks a remarkable sixth sense - the ability to detect magnetic fields. In fact, many species on the planet, including bees, turtles, lobsters and migratory birds have been shown to be magnetoreceptive. Little, however, is known of the cells and circuits that mediate this extraordinary sensory ability. Employing the pigeon Columbia livia as a model system the Keays lab is using immunohistochemistry, live cell imaging, transmission electron microscopy (TEM) and Energy-filtered element mapping to identify and characterise the circuits and cells required for magnetoreception. 

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Keleman Group

What are the molecular, cellular and circuit mechanisms that underlie an animal’s ability to learn and remember? We seek to answer this question using courtship conditioning in Drosophila as a robust and ecologically-relevant model system. In this paradigm, a male learns to preferentially court receptive virgin females rather than unreceptive, mated females. To unravel the molecules and circuits that mediate this form of learning, we apply a combination of methods from biochemistry, molecular biology, genetics and neurobiology.

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Rumpel Group

You turn on the radio and hear this catchy new tune: it will stick in your brain for the rest of your life. Mammalian brains are generally characterized by their tremendous ability to keep a record of the past and to use this information for future decisions and adaptations of behavior. Neuronal circuits of the neocortex play a major role in information storage of these past experiences. Using a combination of molecular approaches, in vivo imaging and behavioral paradigms in mice we are investigating the function and plasticity of neocortical circuits that mediate the memory about sounds. 

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Straw Group

The Straw group studies visually guided flight behavior in the fruitfly. While reflexes in this system have been extensively studied for half a century, we know relatively little regarding the neural circuits that implement these algorithms. Additionally, more sophisticated behaviors such as spatial working memory, place learning, and selective attention have received comparatively little attention. We use rigorous laboratory-based experiments combining quantitative behavioral testing with genetically targeted neural activity modulation to understand how the dynamics of the nervous system implement the behavioral repertoire that makes the fly so successful in its natural habitat.

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Vaziri Group

Our brain is comprised of billions of neurons, each of which makes thousands of connections with other neurons. In order to map these connections and to identify the neuronal circuits that underlie complex brain functions, such as perception or learning, new circuit mapping tools beyond the traditional low throughput pair recording techniques are required. The Vaziri group develops and uses methods for targeted high-speed stimulation and recording of the neuronal activities for large neuronal populations. To achieve this goal we combine methods from ultrafast-, non-linear optics with different types of voltage indicators and optogentic techniques.

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Zimmer Group

A major challenge to investigating brain functions is their sheer complexity. Therefore, the Zimmer Group studies the nematode C. elegans, which has a simple and anatomically defined nervous system of just 302 neurons. Nevertheless, C. elegans can perform sophisticated behaviors. For example, it evaluates its environment by its oxygen content and integrates this information with other factors such as previous experience, food availability and nutritional status to optimize its foraging strategy. We combine behavioral genetics, optogenetics, bioengineering and neural imaging to study the hormonal signal transduction pathways that modulate the underlying neural circuits to achieve such flexibility.

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