Our research focuses on afflictions of the nervous system in which reward seeking plays an important role, such as binge eating disorders and drug addiction. These are prevalent problems that unfortunately can have grim outcomes for those affected, as treatment options are often inadequate.

A particularly pernicious feature of these diseases is their ‘relapsing’ nature. Patients can temporarily suppress their pathological behavior (e.g. drug abstinence, or reduced binge-eating), but unfortunately also tend to remain vulnerable to particular triggers in the environment, which often rekindle their maladaptive actions. Adverse events in particular can be potent re-initiators of reward-seeking behavior. Accordingly, reward-seeking in order to cope with stressful events plays a key role in perpetuating these psychiatric disorders. 

One of the main goals of the lab is to understand how adverse events manage to have such a strong influence on reward seeking. Specifically, we aim to address how aversive events reshape physiological processes of reward systems of the brain in such a way that it causes an increased inclination to seek out unhealthy rewards, like binge eating fattening foods or taking addictive drugs. To this end we perform research in rodents, who share with humans the evolutionarily conserved neural systems responsible for integrating information about stress and rewards. We strive to use the insights we obtain to devise intervention strategies to counteract dysfunctional circuit plasticity and excessive reward seeking, that may ultimately be applied in human patients.  

Guiding our research is the following trio of principles:

  1. Aversive events cause changes at specific synapses (contact points between nerve cells) within neural circuits (combinations of specifically wired neurons across brain regions). 
  2. The importance of these synaptic changes within specific circuits can be gauged, using strategies to mimic or reverse/prevent them, evaluating the resultant impact this has on circuit function and specific behaviors.
  3. This overall approach can provide the basis of successful therapeutic strategies for eating disorders and drug addiction in humans.

In order to determine the function of mapped neural circuits, we primarily make use of electrophysiological approaches, complemented with optogenetics, chemogenetics and neural tracing tools. We also measure calcium signals from neuronal populations, using approaches like fiber photometry. Finally, with the aid of behavioral tests, we utilize the aforementioned technical toolkit to assess the importance of specific forms of circuit plasticity for reward seeking. 

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