Second Annual Waggoner Center Advance - March 21, 2014
Patricia H. Janak
Professor in Residence, University of California, San Francisco
Our laboratory studies the behavioral and neurobiological mechanisms of associative learning, specifically, the learning of the relationships among rewards, such as food, the environmental stimuli that predict their availability, and the actions made to access them. These simple learned associations guide our behavioral response to the environmental stimuli that continually surround us. These stimuli are as varied as food and drink, and stoplights and ringtones. The ability to rapidly and flexibly adjust behavior through this type of associative learning is a key mechanism for adaptive responding to the environment. Associative learning also provides the basis whereby stimuli in the environment come to regulate our emotional responses and to strongly bias our decision-making. Our goal is to define the behavioral and neural mechanisms for the acquisition and implementation of reward-based associations. Because associative learning mechanisms contribute to pathological behaviors such as drug and alcohol addiction and overeating, a major focus of our work is translational. In these studies, we apply our findings on associative learning to understand better how drug- and alcohol-associated stimuli contribute to relapse. To realize our basic and translational goals, we use well-defined animal models of learning and addiction in concert with measurement and manipulation of neuronal populations in specific brain regions and circuits.