April 13, 2017

How are Odors Linked to Innate Behaviors?

Using a mechanism that is likely much more complicated that we thought! Check out the lab's most recent paper, from the inimitable Giuliano Iurilli, who performed the first in vivo recordings ever in a part of the brain called the posterolateral cortical amygdala (plCoA), which couples odors (like fox odor or the scent of peanut butter) to different innate behaviors like attraction and aversion. Based upon anatomic and functional data (including from Sosulski et al), we and others predicted that odor representations in the plCoA should be pretty simple - probably labeled lines that either identified particular odors (i.e., we'd find that neurons in plCoA responded only to single innately relevant odors, so some neurons would respond only to fox odor while other neurons would respond only to peanut butter) or categorized odors based upon their behavioral meaning (i.e., we'd find some plCoA neurons that respond to all odors that are appetitive and other that respond to all odors that are aversive). Instead what Giuliano found was that individual neurons in the plCoA do not encode information about odor identity or odor category. Instead, ensembles of neurons in plCoA collectively convey information about the identity of odor objects in the world, and that the structure of these ensembles is similar regardless of the identity or behavioral meaning of the odor object being encoded. In other words, odor representations in plCoA, which is known to be involved in innate behaviors, look just like those in the piriform cortex, which is involved in odor learning. This surprise suggests a dual role for the plCoA in both innate and learned behaviors, and new models for how the olfactory system can flexibly generate behaviors to innately-relevant odor cues in the environment. Check out his provocative - and exciting - paper here! Yoram Ben Shaul also wrote a great preview of the paper here (for those who want a little more context), and the paper was recently covered by the Simons Foundation (the work was supported in part by the Simons Collaboration on the Global Brain) here. Congrats, Giuliano!

February 1, 2017

Blog Post About Behavior....

...but not here. The folks at BioMed Central did a round-up of recent advances in behavioral quantification for neuroscience, and featured work by Alex, Matt, Jeff, Ralph and the rest of Team Behavior in the lab. It also includes a really nice summary of different approaches taken to this general problem, and includes bits and pieces about work by many of our friends and colleagues, including Gordon Berman, Kristen Branson, Megan Carey, Eiman Azim and Adam Hantman, all of whom are making great strides in developing modern methods for behavioral characterization. Blog post can be found at this link: http://blogs.biomedcentral.com/on-biology/2017/01/31/secret-language-behaviour/?utm_content=buffer4bcbf&utm_medium=social&utm_source=twitter.com&utm_campaign=buffer

December 29, 2016

Happy Holidays 2016!

Although in many respects 2016 was a bummer (RIP Prince and Princess Leia), it was a really terrific year for the lab. We celebrated in style with tapas, before bouncing, as is traditional, to Eastern Standard with the Sabalab and Stevens lab for vodka gimlets. Here's to us all having a happy and productive 2017!

This year, Jeff is Judas

Blue Steel

Paul, having trouble feeding himself

Concerned Co-ops!

December 28, 2016

One of the most interesting things about olfaction is....

....its intimate relationship with evolution. In addition to being the largest gene family in mammals, the odorant receptor genes are some of the fastest evolving. This suggests that perception is being sculpted on rapid timescales to enable individual species to detect and respond to those specific scents that are most critical for their survival and reproduction. Dan Bear (along with Jean Marc Lassance and Hopi Hoekstra) recently wrote a great review on what we can learn about smell by looking at evolutionary dynamics in Current Biology, which can be found here. It is part of a great review issue on evolution and the nervous system - check it out!

December 27, 2016

Congrats to Dan Bear, PhD!

A hearty mazeltov to Dan Bear, who recently gave a beautiful thesis defense and earned his PhD. Dan worked on the Ms4a genes, a new class of olfactory receptor he discovered (along with his colleague in the lab and benchmate, Paul Greer) that mediates sensory responses in the necklace olfactory subsystem (check out his super-cool paper here).  In addition to being an amazing scientist, knowing at least two pluralizations of "octopus" that are not "octopuses" or the incorrect "octopi," and the only person who really knows what is in Thom Yorke's heart, Dan both set the bar really high for the lab and defined many of the problems we are working on now. Thankfully for us, he is sticking around for a few months to finish up the follow-up to the first Ms4a paper, so it is not goodbye yet - just congrats at a job well done!

Dan deftly answering questions at his defense

The famous 10,000-word email

Toasting good fortune and hard work

Receiving the traditional lab gift

Dan will be missed!

Now, which brain is the pigeon?

November 28, 2016

Greer, Bear et al featured on the MRC's Biomedical Picture of the Week...

and can be found here. Note that the very next day the same blog posted a lovely pic from our friend Rachel Greenberg.

November 16, 2016

NIPS Trailer

Check out this terrific trailer for our upcoming NIPS abstract (with Alex Wiltschko, Matt Johnson, Ryan Adams and David Duvenaud) put together by David - it does a really nice job explaining the value of merging a model-based approach with neural nets. The combination allows clear articulation of model structure - and maintenance of semantic meaning - while simultaneously taking advantage of flexibly learned feature embeddings. We think this is going to be an important and general method for capturing structure in high-dimensional data. If you are at NIPS this year, check it out!

October 9, 2016

Dr. Tan!

Congratulations to Tari Tan for successfully defending her thesis! Tari did an amazing job explaining her work on the structure and function of the necklace olfactory system. We won't even try to summarize Tari's tenure in the lab, but her hard work, integrity, insight and sense of joy played an crucial role in making the lab what it is in spirit and in science. She has single-handedly re-written our thinking about the structural basis of olfactory perception - keep a weather-eye out for her work in the next few months, and you'll see what we mean :) We would bemoan her absence from our lives, but she is taking a job as the curriculum fellow for the Program in Neuroscience — she is going to be in charge of modernizing the way graduate students at Harvard learn about the brain — and she'll be continuing (at least for a while) in the lab on the side. So this is not so much goodbye as it is a congratulations on an amazing job! Here's to the newly minted Dr. Tan!

Tari making fun of Bob...
...and Bob emphasizing how much Tari loves the Pats!

Post-defense cake

Since robes won't be worn until the Spring, this will have to do for now

Happy Graduation Tari!

October 3, 2016

It is always sunny at the beach!

So here is another thing that really happened: after our annual beach trip (see pics below) we ended up at a bar on the North Shore in a group trivia contest. In the end, it came down to the Datta lab and some other group that turned out to be a bunch of researchers studying cnetophores....which of course don't have real nervous systems! When all was said and done, the $50 worth of free buffalo wings to the winner was ours, Natch! Because our model organism can actually think.

(Most of) The Lab!

Bob, per usual, losing a grape eating contest to Aviva
Trivia Champs!
A long day for Ralphie

July 26, 2016

Cool explainer video for Greer et al paper....

...made by a bunch of enthusiastic science communicators for public consumption can be found below. It captures the spirit of the paper really nicely. Enjoy!

A new mechanism and logic for mammalian olfaction

A huge congrats to Paul and Dan (and to everyone else in the lab whose hard work helped with the story) on their recent publication on a new family of chemoreceptors expressed in the mouse olfactory system. This paper, published last month in Cell, revises the canonical view of how mammalian olfaction works by identifying a new receptor family (called the MS4As) that do not encode seven-transmembrane-containing g-protein coupled receptors (like all other known mammalian chemoreceptor families) but instead encode proteins with only four transmembrane domains. These receptors, which respond to a wide variety of ethologically-relevant odors, including attractive food cues and aversive pheromones, are all co-expressed in the neurons in which they are expressed. These observations, in additional to being incredibly provocative, raise all sorts of interesting questions now being addressed in the lab: about the role of the MS4As in sensory perception; about the modes of coding and decoding of sensory information in the “necklace” system, the subsystem in which the MS4As are expressed; about the brain circuits attached to MS4A-expressing neurons in the nose; and about the behavioral consequences of activating the MS4A receptors. Lots of great stuff in the paper itself, which you can check out here! You can see coverage of these findings here, here and here.

And Lisa Stowers wrote a really nice (and generous!) preview of the article for Cell found here!

June 10, 2016

Alex Graduates!

A heartfelt thanks and farewell to Alex Wiltschko, who graduated from the lab with his PhD this month. Alex was instrumental in many of our projects, but his thesis focused on developing new methods for behavioral classification, with the goal of using this information to better understand how genes and neural circuit activity change patterned action. You can check out his work here and here; keep an eagle eye out for more in the near future. Alex had an immeasurable influence on the lab in the best possible ways – he will be sorely missed. We wish him all the best, and look forward to his future scientific accomplishments. Congrats, Alex!


Wrestled snake, now wrestles cake!

Graduation party



Super-dicey party bus

June 2, 2016


Gaudeamus Igitur! Ralph Peterson, Kristen Drummey and Jesse Katon, three of our amazing Northeastern co-op students, just graduated from Northeastern. Lucky for us, all three are sticking around at least for a little while longer. Oh, and the folks at Northeastern gave Ralphie an award as best co-op! Congrats to all!

Ralph is all smiles!

April 1, 2016

Happy Brain Awareness Week 2016!!!!

As anyone who has visited the lab knows, a ton of the power under the hood comes from Northeastern Co-op students; this great program brings undergraduates from our neighbor on Huntington Avenue into the lab for stints that last from three months to years — one of the things we are proudest of is that these undergraduates become a key part of the scientific process, and participate fully in projects from conception to completion. So when the NE Co-ops asked Bob to be a guest speaker at the NE Brain Awareness Week he jumped! Sure, Taco Bell was eaten, a lecture was given, questions were answered, and shout-outs were given to all the NE students who work so hard in lab. But then the tables turned, and everyone went out to the local UG bar around the corner. Just for reference, that thing that we are all doing with the shot glasses that are glued to a ski....is called a shotski! Who knew?

Brain Awareness Cake

Yes, there was an actual lecture. Here Bob gestures the letter C because Neurobiology is Cool!

About halfway through.

Shotski with  Natasha, Joe, Bob and Ralph

March 22, 2016

New Paper with the Adams lab...

...on the development and use of Structured Variational Autoencoders to better understand behavioral (and other classses) of data, posted today to the arXiv. The paper is super-cool - it describes a method to learn representations of complex time-series data (which are often non-linear) that are well-suited to structured models (using a Hidden Markov Model, for example). The approach could be used to solve many practical problems in modeling behavioral data, and we are really excited to try it on our 3D datasets. Congrats to Matt and Alex (and of course Ryan Adams) on their great work!

December 23, 2015

Happy Holidays 2015!

This was a hell of a year, and so the Datta lab (minus a few early departures for much-deserved vacation - Tari and Ralph, you were missed!) did it up - a little izakaya action, followed by vodka gimlets at Eastern Standard with the Sabatini, Harwell and Stevens labs. This is a true story: there was a live cockroach on our pickled vegetables, and after swapping it out, WE ALL KEPT EATING! Says a lot! Happy holidays to all - here's looking forward to a great 2016.

Everyone happy....except Bob, who wanted another cream puff....

   This video is a metaphor, in which Paul is alcohol, and Masha is the entire rest of the lab

December 21, 2015

December 16, 2015

Video Abstract for Wiltschko et al.

We made a little movie explainer for the public about our new approach to behavioral characterization. We hope you like it!

Interested in Mouse Behavior?...

...then check out the latest paper from the lab in this week's issue of Neuron! The paper describes a new technology for behavioral characterization and classification that combines 3D machine vision with recently developed approaches in unsupervised machine learning. This combined method can be used to objectively characterize mouse behavior in a wide variety of circumstances, and to identify changes in action induced after manipulations of the environment, the genome or neural activity; as such, this approach promises to provide fundamental insight into the complex relationships between the genome, neural activity and patterns of action. We are currently using this method in the lab in a wide array of experiments, ranging from characterizing naturalistic patterns of odor-driven behavior in rodents to trying to identify nodes within corticostriatal circuits responsible for behavioral sequencing. Congrats to Alex, Matt and others in the lab who contributed to the paper!

(PDF can be found under the "Publications" tab, and further discussion in the "Research" section).

October 22, 2015


Thank god that is over! 30,000 people, and a seemingly equal number of posters. Also answered was the question: how many slices of deep dish can one eat in a week? Stan, Alex and Ralphie did a great job sharing their data with the community, our colleagues Bernardo and Beth gave fantastic plenary talks, and it was terrific to see Mike and Carla win the Gruber prize. Enough to make this an annual event? Maybe.....

Alex, somewhere in the scrum, talking about our new 3D behavioral analysis technology

Blurry but well-earned: Carla and Mike accepting the Gruber prize!

I appreciate the frankness of the vomit fee in Chicago cabs

Ralphie's first real meeting poster