New junior research group at the Biocenter


Jan Marek Ache heads a new junior research group at the Biocenter. He aims to decode basic mechanisms of flexible behavior control.

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How does the nervous system produce flexible, context-dependent behavior? If a person or animal encounters a situation, their behavior and performance is heavily dependent on a multitude of intrinsic and extrinsic factors. For example, a huge piece of cake looks super delicious when you are hungry, and you will probably eat it, but it quickly becomes an irritant once you have eaten too much of it. Hence, you will probably reject the sixth piece of cake you are offered. Thus, the same external stimulus or requirement can trigger vastly different reactions and behaviors depending on context and internal state. Despite the fact that all animals and humans exhibit such flexibility, because it is essential for survival, the neuronal mechanisms enabling it remain poorly understood. 

Jan M. Ache and his lab are interested in unraveling the mechanisms that enable the nervous system to respond to external cues in a way that takes the intrinsic physiological state, such as satiety, tiredness, or ongoing behavioral activities, into account. The lab’s model of choice is the fruit fly, Drosophila melanogaster. Despite their tiny brains, flies are capable of producing a vast number of different behaviors, and, just like other animals, they take contextual cues and their intrinsic state into account before they take action. Unlike most animals, however, Drosophila offers a multitude of genetic tools that make it possible to record their brain activity and manipulate their nervous system while they make such decisions. Thus, we can observe changes in the brain while the fly is engaging in different behaviors or undergoing intrinsic state changes. Perhaps even more importantly, we can disrupt parts of their neural circuitry to test if these components are required for certain functions.

Methodologically, the lab is combining in-vivo patch-clamp recordings and calcium imaging to measure the activity of individual neurons in behaving flies with (opto-) genetic perturbations of the brain circuitry. Thus, we hope to shed light on the neuronal underpinnings enabling behavioral flexibility.