Our research aims are to study neural circuitry mechanism of animal behaviors in health and disease, as well as develop research tools and disease therapies.

1. Interactions of the feeding and emotion neural circuits

One fascinating and important phenomenon (or problem) in neuroscience is that many neuronal diseases are co-morbid. For example, most eating disorder patients also have emotional disorders such as depression and anxiety. However, relatively little is known about the neurobiology underlying eating disorders, even less is known about its relationship to emotional disorders. Recently, we have identified a specific population of neurons in central amygdala (CEA), called PKC-δ+ neurons, that play important roles in regulating both feeding and emotional behaviors including anxiety and conditioned fear (Nature Neuroscience 2014, 17:1240 and Nature 2010, 468:270). This work has opened the door to understanding interactions of the feeding and emotion circuits. One immediate important question is whether the same or rather different subset of CEA PKC-δ+ neurons mediate these different behaviors.

2. Central neural circuits of gut-brain communication

Satiety signals such as CCK are released in the gastrointestinal tract (GI tract) during a meal. They activate the vagus nerves to reach the central brain nucleus tractus solitarius (NTS), and then to the parabrachial nucleus (PBN). PBN sends information further to CEA and other nucleus to stop feeding. Other anorexigenic signals including LiCl and bitter tastant, are also using similar pathways to reach the central brain to mediate various behavioral responses. Interestingly, CEA neurons represent the first inhibitory relay in this pathway. Therefore, conventional mapping methods such as c-Fos staining cannot go further downstream of this pathway. The genetic identification of CEA PKC-δ+ neurons provided us a unique tool to investigate the gut-brain communication in a specific way and determine the downstream brain regions after CEA.

3. Feeding and emotion circuits in energy balance, metabolism, and obesity

More and more evidences suggest that the neural circuits regulate emotion and acute feeding behaviors also contribute to the long term homeostasis of energy balance, metabolism, and body weight. Do CEA neural circuits also regulate obesity, a more and more serious global health problem in modern society? The neurons in the hypothalamic nuclei (Hyp), including lateral hypothalamus, arcuate nucleus, and paraventricular hypothalamic nucleus, have been well demonstrated to be involved in acute feeding regulation and long term energy homeostasis. What is the relationship of the CEA feeding circuits to the circuits in the hypothalamic nuclei?

4. What are the computations performed by these neural circuits in behaviors

 

Further readings