On the surface, my projects may seem randomly scattered across the biological sciences. But there's an underlying theme concerning the general organization of behavior with regards to reward, punishment and decision making: How do brains accomplish adaptive behavioral choice? All animals possess a repertoire of inborn behaviors and continuously modify and adjust them to meet the requirements of the environment by learning. To study these processes, I use operant (instrumental) conditioning paradigms and contrast them with classical (Pavlovian) conditioning situations in flies (Drosophila) and snails (Aplysia). Such comparisons highlight the differences and similarities between behavioral and environmental learning, the two forms of predictive learning. Predicting the future is a vital information guiding animals in their decision of what to do next.
After now 15 years of research in this field, I starting to be convinced that the main function of brains may be best described in terms of output/input systems. Brains generate spontaneous behavior and monitor the incoming sensory stream for the portion which is controlled by the behavior. Operant behavior and operant learning are the main mechanisms by which this function is accomplished and the consequences of behavioral choices are evaluated.
Before focusing on these simple forms of learning, I studied the neurobiology of aggression underlying the choice between fight or flight, I ventured into behavioral ecology to understand how animals decide whether to stay or to go and I also delved into the evolution of cooperation which influences the decisions of whether to cooperate or to defect.
Methods used include a number of behavioral and physiological paradigms in various invertebrate and vertebrate model systems, in vitro conditioning of isolated nervous systems, opto- and electrophysiology, mutants/transgenes, molecular biology and some pharmacology. Computer modeling of simple networks complements the experimental work.