A central goal in modern neurobiology is to understand the neural mechanism by which sensory stimuli of the external world is converted into meaningful actions. The vast majority of external stimuli do not have inherent valence or behavioral significance. Instead those qualities are imposed on the stimuli through experience. This learning component plays a broader role in animals with imposed social structures. Increasingly sophisticated tools in anatomical, genetic and molecular methods as well as optogenetics and optical recordings are providing unprecedented understanding of circuit structures and function in brains of all kinds. However, how these circuits are interacting with neuromodulators to produce learned behaviors is not well understood. Here, we propose to identify neural circuits that are responsible for the generation of social learning using anatomic, genetic, molecular and behavioral tools. We will use known piriform circuitry to identify the neural substrates on which social meaning is imposed on sensory stimuli. Further, we will delineate the pathway by moving forward in the circuit to identif output regions responsible for producing behavior. Finally, these experiments will allow the mapping of nodes at which the neuromodulator oxytocin interacts with the olfactory circuitry, providing us a more complete picture - neural circuits and neuromodulatory cues - of how the brain translates sensory representations to meaningful behavior through learning. We believe that the circuit identified through this proposal would serve as an ideal platform to address how oxytocin interacts with mechanisms of adaptation and mal-adaptation during social learning. Furthermore, although we ask these questions in the context of olfactory circuits, oxytocin and social behaviors, the results will have a broad impact across neurobiology, from the studying of sensory coding to neuromodulators.
Oxytocin system dysfunction may contribute to mental disorders in which impaired social functioning is a core component. However, how oxytocin-regulated processes go awry to result in these diseases is still largely unknown. We believe that the circuit identified through this proposal would serve as an ideal platform to address how oxytocin interacts with mechanisms of adaptation and mal-adaptation during social learning.
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