Disorders of learning and memory are a major issue facing many people and families today. My laboratory focuses on the neuroplasticity of the brain, and in particular how neuroplasticity supports information processing and storage when animals (like humans) learn and remember something new. What are the biological mechanisms that control learning-induced plasticity in the brain? And how does neuroplasticity contribute to long-term memory about newly learned information?
We in the CLEF Lab (*CLEF Lab = Cortex Learning Epigenetics & Function) study the auditory cortex to investigate sensory information processing, learning, and storage in memory. For example, the lab uses rodent models of simple associative learning to show that a rat can learn to press a button when they hear a particular acoustic frequency to receive rewards. How does the animal learn this specific auditory association? It turns out that the brain's representation of sound changes when the animal learns a sound is important, e.g., for obtaining reward. Mechanisms of neuroplasticity "re-tune" the auditory cortex so more cells become highly sensitive to the important acoustic frequency (and less sensitive to other frequencies). This has become known and identified in the field as auditory receptive field plasticity, frequency tuning shifts, and cortical (tonotopic) map expansion.
Our research questions are: (1) How does the auditory cortex come to encode sound-specific information? (2) What are the biological mechanisms of plasticity that select auditory cells and circuits for "re-tuning"? (3) What behavioral factors make animals "good" or "poor" learners? And how is "good vs. poor learning" related to auditory neuroplasticity and subsequent memory? Our lab investigates these questions at multiple levels. We use behavioral training and tests in rats, cortical electrophysiology, and molecular genetics to understand the behavioral, neural systems, and epigenetic mechanisms that dictate how animals (like humans) can learn and remember. Epigenetic mechanisms that control gene expression also offer an entry point to study and identify key genes associated with neuroplasticity and adaptive behavior. Thus, our research also has implications for identifying key genes that may be involved in auditory communication and learning disorders, e.g., autism.
Keeping in mind that the function of the auditory system lies at a complex junction between sensory perceptual and cognitive processes is integral to our research. Therefore, by studying the learning-induced plasticity of the auditory cortex, students will have in-depth exposure to research and scientific literature relevant to neural processes of perception, learning, memory, and plasticit