• Research topics and methods in the Haberkern lab
Chair of Behavioral Physiology & Sociobiology

Haberkern lab - Behavioural strategies and neural mechanisms for robust navigation

How do animals know where they are and choose appropriate navigational strategies?
Navigating through diverse and dynamic environments is a fundamental and highly complex problem. To achieve robust navigation and quick adaptation to new situations, our brains generate abstract internal representations of relevant information from the environment, which in turn are used to guide actions. A spatial representation that has been identified in a range of species is a head direction estimate or neural compass. How external sensory stimuli are processed to update this compass and circuit mechanisms ensuring stability of the compass in dynamic environments are poorly understood. Furthermore, it is largely unknown how such a compass guides behaviour and how animals adapt their navigational strategies when their internal compass system fails.

We investigate how visual information is integrated and organised in the central brain to support orientation and navigation in dynamic environments. We also study which sensory environments drive different navigational strategies and how circuits can be adapted to environmental conditions through structural plasticity.

We study two organisms that each bring unique experimental advantages
In fruit flies (Drosophila melanogaster) we can use genetic tools and established calcium imaging techniques to monitor and perturb defined populations of neurons. Desert ants (Cataglyphis nodus) have exquisite and robust navigation behaviour, which has been characterised in a defined ethological context. We compare these models across multiple axes: anatomical structure of circuits, behaviour and eventually physiology.

Connecting circuits to behaviour
Our goal is to understand how neural activity drives behaviour. To get there, we combine a range of cutting-edge techniques:

  • immersive virtual reality (VR) to simulate natural environments in the laboratory
  • in-vivo 2-photon calcium imaging in actively behaving flies (in VR)
  • high-resolution volume electron microscopy for connectomics

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  • Linking the functional organisation of sensory information in the central brain to robustness of compass estimates in dynamic, multimodal environments.
  • Uncovering rules for multimodal integration and cue preference for a robust compass estimate.
  • Characterization of sensory signals driving choice of different navigational strategies.
  • Adaptation of circuits through structural plasticity and implications for orientation.

Selected publications

  • Maintaining a stable head direction representation in naturalistic visual environments. Haberkern, Hannah; Chitnis, Shivam S; Hubbard, Philip M; Goulet, Tobias; Hermundstad, Ann M; Jayaraman, Vivek. In bioRxiv. Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory, 2022.
  • A connectome of the Drosophila central complex reveals network motifs suitable for flexible navigation and context-dependent action selection.. Hulse, Brad K*; Haberkern, Hannah*; Franconville, Romain; Turner-Evans, Daniel; Takemura, Shin-Ya; Wolff, Tanya; Noorman, Marcella; Dreher, Marisa; Dan, Chuntao; Parekh, Ruchi; Hermundstad, Ann M; Rubin, Gerald M; Jayaraman, Vivek. In eLife, 10, p. e66039-. England, 2021.
  • Visually Guided Behavior and Optogenetically Induced Learning in Head-Fixed Flies Exploring a Virtual Landscape. Haberkern, Hannah; Basnak, Melanie A.; Ahanonu, Biafra; Schauder, David; Cohen, Jeremy D.; Bolstad, Mark; Bruns, Christopher; Jayaraman, Vivek. In Current Biology, 29(10), pp. 1647–1659.e8. 2019.
  • Behavioural integration of auditory and antennal stimulation during phonotaxis in the field cricket Gryllus bimaculatus.. Haberkern, Hannah; Hedwig, Berthold. In Journal of Experimental Biology, 219(22), pp. 3575–3586. 2016.
  • Studying small brains to understand the building blocks of cognition. Haberkern, Hannah; Jayaraman, Vivek. In Current Opinion in Neurobiology, 37, pp. 59–65. 2016.