We use the Drosophila model organisms to study the genetic and neural mechanisms underlying social interactions. The primary goal of my laboratory is to understand the genetic and neural mechanisms that control various types of social behaviors. According to NIH Medical Subject Headings (MeSH), social behavior is “any behavior caused by or affecting another individual or group usually of the same species”. This means that virtually every animal must perform a range of social behaviors to survive and successfully reproduce. Despite the importance of these behaviors, we know relatively little about the genetic and neural mechanisms by which animals select appropriate behaviors, interpret responses by other individuals, and adjust action choice based on previous experiences. When the human nervous system is impaired in processing any of these steps, the result can be mental and psychiatric disorders that manifest difficulties in social interactions, such as autism, schizophrenia, and personality disorders.
Our work is focused on social interactions (mainly aggressive interactions and courtship behavior) of the common fruit fly Drosophila melanogaster. This organism is an attractive model for studying social interactions because: 1) powerful genetic technologies enable the rapid and precise manipulation of gene function, 2) neuronal activities can be monitored and manipulated using a variety of genetically encoded effectors, and 3) the rich, yet stereotypical, repertoire of social behaviors are amenable to automatic quantification. We are taking multidisciplinary approaches to investigate how genes affects neuronal physiology, circuit dynamics, and behavior. We also seek to understand how animals adjust their “behavioral strategies” depending on experiences and circumstances, and how behavioral experience feeds back to affect gene expression and neuronal function. Our goal is to uncover universal genetic and neural motifs important for the control of social interactions in various situations. Such knowledge will help us understand how our brain mediates interactions with those around us.