Understanding how neuronal circuits produce sensory perception and generate behavioral output is a central theme of neuroscience. The rapid and precise processing of sensory information is not only essential for survival, but also important for learning and social interactions. Dysfunction of sensory processing underlies major clinical problems. The long-term research interest of our lab is to understand how sensory information is processed in neuronal circuits, using a combination of pharmacological, genetic, optogenetic, electrophysiological, and behavioral techniques.
Sensory processing and modulation in thalamic circuits
Thalamus is the central relay station for most sensation. Sensory information passes through the thalamus before reaching the cortex. In turn, neurons in the cortex send feedback projection to the thalamus, and dynamically modulate the sensory processing in the thalamus. One of the major research interests of our lab is to determine the function, plasticity and modulation of thalamic circuits. In particular, we will examine whether thalamic circuits are affected in mental disorders such as autism and schizophrenia that show sensory processing disorder.
Neural circuits of itch sensation
We also seek to elucidate the organizing principle of neural circuits by studying the circuitry of itch sensation. Itch is an unpleasant sensation that triggers the desire to scratch, and it has both sensory-discriminative and motivational components. Despite the rapid progress made in understanding the molecular mechanism of the itch-signaling pathway, the circuit basis of itch signal processing remains elusive. Our recent discovery of itch-specific neurons in the spinal cord provides a unique opportunity to decipher the circuitry for itch signal processing in the central nervous system. We are interested in answering several fundamental questions: What is the circuitry of sensory and motivational components of itch? How is itch signal encoded in the central nervous system? How does the neural circuit of the motivational component of itch overlap and interact with other biological processes?