The newly awarded research grant is the second consecutive ERC advanced grant awarded to Dr. Mainen, representing the first time a researcher working in Portugal receives this award two successive times.
This grant will be dedicated to study how serotonin influences the way we perceive the world and consequently our behaviour.
"Sensory information does not arrive to the brain as into a vacant field", explains Dr. Mainen, "when information about a sensory input such as an odour arrives to the brain it is added onto an active field of neural activity. The interaction of this on-going activity with the sensory input will affect the way we both perceive and respond to it."
Through preliminary studies, research led by Dr. Mainen, at the Champalimaud Centre for the Unknown, identified that serotonin has a significant effect on this on-going activity. Specifically, "we observed that serotonin supresses activity from higher brain areas, those thought to store our existing knowledge and beliefs about the world." These observations led Dr. Mainen to propose this line of experiments where "we will be testing if serotonin acts to suppress prior beliefs when they conflict with new sensory information".
"With this grant, we will be able to design and perform experiments that will tackle multiple facets of an important general computational question, bringing to bear an array of cutting-edge technologies to address with unprecedented mechanistic detail how serotonin impacts neural coding and perceptual decision-making". Dr. Mainen concludes, "We're hoping to understand how anti-depressants, which primarily target serotonin system, relieve depression".
Serotonin is a small molecule known to be implicated in a wide range of brain functions, from the control of sleep and appetite, to the regulation of complex behaviors, but the mechanisms by which serotonin works are still not clear. The group of researchers, at Champalimaud Centre for the Unknown, led by investigator Zachary Mainen, has been studying the role of serotonin for the past few years, revealing its role in sensitivity to pain (read more in: http://neuro.
Zachary Mainen Brief Bio
Zachary Mainen is a neuroscientist whose research focuses on the brain mechanisms of decision- making. He studied psychology and philosophy at Yale University, received his doctorate in Neuroscience from the University of California, San Diego, and held a faculty position at Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory, New York, before moving to Lisbon in 2007 to found the Champalimaud Neuroscience Programme, where he is now the director. His work has been recognized by two Advanced Investigator Grants of the European Research Council and the election to the European Molecular Biology Organization. Mainen's research explores brain function, especially decision-making, using theory-driven experimental approaches. His laboratory helped to pioneer the use of quantitative behavioral paradigms in rodents and combines those approaches with electrophysiological, optical and genetic techniques to study neural representation and computation. He has a long-standing interest in the issue of how noise and uncertainty impact neural systems and behavior and our understanding of these processes. His lab is currently exploring these questions in the context of odor-guided perceptual decisions and learning, the timing and selection of simple actions, and the role of the neuromodulator serotonin in behavior and cortical function. This work touches on philosophical issues surrounding causality, free will, knowledge and belief.