Our research explores the psychological and neural underpinnings of the emotions, from their facial and physiological expression to their interactions with cognitive processes such as attention and memory.
Emotional relevance of things in our environment can have a notable impact on our behavior. Atypical capture of attention by emotional stimuli is at the core of many psychiatric disorders. On the other hand, some human interactions can help direct attention to relevant elements of the environment, providing social facilitation of learning. What are the neural mechanisms underlying the interplay between emotion and attention, and what role does positive affect play in social learning?
This research program is investigating the evolution of disgust in humans, from its apparent roots in protecting the body from harmful substances to its potential involvement in regulating advanced social behavior and cognition. Deepening our understanding of disgust can provide key insight into public perception of diseases, challenges in disease treatment and diagnosis, and more.
How do the brain and the rest of the body communicate with and influence one another? Take breathing, for example: breathing-related processes may help form a fundamental basis for several higher-order cognitive processes. How does basic neural processing related to sensory aspects of breathing influence higher forms of cognition, including social and interoceptive processing? Other avenues we hope to explore include the interaction between the gut microbiome and mental well-being, and how mind-body training may bolster cognitive skills.
The neurochemical acetylecholine is strongly implicated in attention, and reduced acetylcholine levels appear to be involved Alzheimer's disease, as well as in normal cognitive decline as we get older. Attention, however, is a complex process involving numerous components. We use behavioral manipulations in both humans and rats to explore the precise role of this neurochemical in our ability to direct, maintain, and shift our attention.
Our research investigates the neuromodulatory influences on attention and learning in rats. To examine the specific contributions of the neurochemical acetylcholine, we employ pharmacological and immunotoxic lesion techniques along with cross-species comparisons.
How exactly does acetylecholine effect neural activity to allow for attention? Using electroencephalography and functional magnetic resonance imaging in humans, and local field potential recordings coupled with cholinergic lesions in rats, we are investigating the dynamic neural activity associated with acetylecholine's role in attention.
Learning can influence not only our large scale behaviors, but even our understanding of the environment around us. Using behavioral studies and functional magnetic resonance imaging, this line of research delves into how learning impacts our perception of stimuli.
Throughout our research projects, our lab maintains the attitude that our experimental goals should determine the tools we use, rather than vice versa. This approach has led to the development of cutting edge technologies, including multi-channel, fMRI-compatible human olfactometers and gustatometers; a pipeline for conducting real-time electroencephalography to decode emotional states; and single electrodes capable of recording both electrochemical and electrophysiological data.