The overall goal of work in our laboratory is to understand how complex behaviors are modulated by external chemosensory cues and internal physiological states. The lab takes a multi-disciplinary approach spanning cell biology, genetics, neurobiology and behavior. Our early focus has been to study how the brain interprets olfactory signals in the environment that signal food, danger, or potential mating partners. We have been studying these problems in three model organisms: the fly, the mosquito and the human. The majority of the early work in the laboratory was carried out in the genetically tractable vinegar fly, Drosophila melanogaster, which displays a rich repertoire of chemosensory behaviors despite having a nervous system with only 100,000 neurons. In this animal, we have studied the functional neuroanatomy of the olfactory system, how this system perceives sex pheromones, and the structure and function of the insect odorant receptors.
We have recently expanded our research focus in three major directions. First, we are establishing a mosquito genetics research program to understand host-seeking and blood-feeding behavior in the mosquito. Second, we are carrying out large-scale human subjects research to combine olfactory psychophysics with genetic analysis to understand the mechanisms of olfactory perception in humans. Third, we are getting increasingly interested in the links between olfaction and feeding behavior and hope to use Drosophila as a powerful model to understand how smell intersects with hunger and satiety in all animals.
The long-term goal of all of our work is to understand how behaviors emerge from the integration of sensory input with internal physiological states.
"The act of smelling something, anything, is remarkably like the act of thinking. Immediately at the moment of perception, you can feel the mind going to work, sending the odor around from place to place, setting off complex repertories through the brain, polling one center after another for signs of recognition, for old memories and old connection." Lewis Thomas