Dr. Annegret Falkner, an assistant professor at the Princeton Neuroscience Institute, has just been awarded the prestigious Klingenstein-Simons Fellowship in Neuroscience. The Klingenstein-Simons Fellowship aims to support high-risk, high-reward research by early career neuroscientists, funding both basic neuroscience research as well as clinical research tied to the diagnosis and/or treatment of neurological and behavioral disorders. In addition to financially supporting an investigator’s research over a period of three years, the Fellowship provides access to yearly meetings with other systems neuroscientists and Fellows.
Annegret’s lab studies how social experience leads to changes in neural computations within the hypothalamus, amygdala and midbrain and how these changes can ultimately affect behavior. Specifically, Annegret’s lab is focused on how neural activity encodes motivation for social behavior, the role of inhibitory circuits in controlling aggression and how position within a social hierarchy can leave lasting imprints on neural activity. Annegret and members of her lab investigate these research questions using a powerful combination of electrophysiology, molecular biology, quantitative behavior analysis and modeling. For the Klingenstein-Simons Fellowship however, Annegret proposed a novel set of studies and methodologies to test the hypothesis that neural networks in the hypothalamus can encode signals that represent motivation or choice for a specific social target, either aggression or sex.
In these experiments, mice will perform a trained task that can result in the opportunity to engage in either aggressive behavior or sex and these social rewards will be automatically delivered for brief intervals. In addition to tracking bodily movement during this task, neural activity will be recorded in the hypothalamus to determine if activation in these areas is temporally associated with either action of motivation during the task. Finally, Annegret and her lab members plan to use optogenetics to specifically manipulate neural activity in regions where activity has been temporally associated with either social choice or motivational states. This final set of experiments will be done to determine if social choice or motivational states can be induced through activation of particular regions within the hypothalamus. Ultimately, these innovative studies will allow us to better understand how the brain creates and regulates motivation and choice for social interactions.
by Chris Suriano