We think of nervous systems as the means by which an animal organizes its world, but a deep time perspective suggests that it is rather the world of an animal that organizes its brain. Prior to the vertebrate invasion of land 385 million years ago, vision, our most powerful long-range sense, took in a largely blurry world at short range while underwater, with little variability in scene as the eyes move. Once on land, vision takes in a high contrast world at long range, with high variability as the eyes move. A possible reason for the greatly increased size and complexity of terrestrial vertebrate brains over those of fish is that this environment provides selective advantage to long sequences of actions toward distant goals, reaching its most complex form in varieties of prospective cognition in certain mammals and birds. A team of Northwestern researchers will conduct research into the computational, behavioral, and neural basis of planning, rooted in an evolutionary and computational sensory ecology perspective and a commitment to ethologically relevant behaviors. Planning is an immensely important capacity to understand the mechanistic basis of, as it participates in a diverse range of behaviors, and its diminishment favors impulsivity and reliance on the habit system. Up to now, laboratory studies of planning have typically relied on reduced environments and simple behaviors which are either appetitive or (more rarely) aversive, without a sentient target, the dynamics and unpredictability of which is likely key to the adequate analysis of prospective cognition. Methods from neuroengineering and data-intensive neuroscience will be brought to bear on the problem of making a more ethologically relevant, yet tightly controlled approach to investigating planning possible. The computational and behavioral work will be used to guide neurobiological interventions in two of the key brain structures that participate in reactive versus reflective decision making and choice: the striatum and hippocampus.
The team will pursue research with an unusually bold intellectual dynamic range well beyond a typical disciplinary approach, from its motivation rooted in evolutionary biology and computational sensory ecology, to the extension of the latest machine learning methods, through to single-cell resolution imaging of live animal behavior in a virtual reality system. The researchers will knit together parallel synergistic efforts in the simulation of planning, a mechatronically reconfigurable behavior arena with a robot predator, and two-photon single cell resolution imaging in a virtual reality system, resulting in an ethologically relevant context significantly more complex than current practice in laboratory settings. There are few areas of neuroscience that have as much potential to impact society as research on the neural basis of planning. Discussions of self-control, marshmallow tests, grit, and challenges we face in making long term plans such as retirement or adapting to changing climate for future generations fill the media. One of the team's research goals is to understand the manner in which the nervous system participates in constraining the temporal and spatial range of prospective cognition,which is clearly quite limited even in humans, toward a neuroscience of sustainability.
This award reflects NSF's statutory mission and has been deemed worthy of support through evaluation using the Foundation's intellectual merit and broader impacts review criteria.