Ian Davison

Ph.D., Simon Fraser University
5 Cummington Mall, Room 406

Associate Professor of Biology, BU College of Arts & Sciences

Research Interests

Our lab studies the neural circuits that underlie perception and behavior in the olfactory system. Smell is notorious for its links to emotion and memory, and in the animal world, it is also a powerful trigger of innate behaviors like aggression, courtship, and fear. Our overall goal is to establish the circuit architecture and computational principles that the olfactory system uses to map chemical cues onto both stereotyped and learned behaviors.

In the vomeronasal system, pheromonal cues are detected by highly specific receptors, and are tightly coupled to evolutionarily conserved behavioral circuits in the limbic system. The hardwired and concise nature of these pathways provides a powerful window on the links between sensation and behavior. We use genetic tools to tag the sensory neurons associated with innate social behaviors, helping reveal both their anatomical organization, as well as how they are shaped by experience-dependent plasticity to help calibrate interactions with different social partners.

A second focus of the lab is to understand how flexible sensory processing emerges from plasticity in cortical circuits. Despite the noisy, variable, and incomplete sensory data received from the outside world, the brain easily maintains remarkably stable internal percepts. To this end, it must continually update the way that it parses new sensory information into meaningful behavioral categories. Here, our goal is to understand how this perceptual stability is supported by changes in the internal organization of local networks in piriform cortex.

To probe the organization of the circuits for both innate and flexible sensory responses, we use genetic tools for tagging and manipulating the neural ensembles engaged during different behaviors, complemented with population-scale activity measurements using imaging and electrophysiology, and quantitative behavioral reports of the animal’s sensory experience. Ultimately our hope is that olfaction will help reveal basic principles for flexible sensory processing and information storage in the nervous system.

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