Motivational aspects of social preference behaviour
Rewards are appetitive, incentive stimuli triggering positive outcomes of motivated behaviour. They can serve as reinforcers, increasing the behaviour occurrence or its strength in the future. Animals are able to integrate different rewarding stimuli from the surrounding environment, including interactions with other members of their species. In this scenario, numerous stimuli may be present at the same time, and animals must adapt their behavioural responses based on changes in the environmental context, in the physiological and metabolic needs (internal state), or based on prior experiences. This behavioural flexibility is critical for survival. So far, the behavioural responses during competing drive states and the mechanisms that underlie the adaptive prioritization of behaviour remain poorly known.
The neurobiological mechanisms underlying motivational factors (including reward, emotion, hunger) that influence goal-oriented behaviour are of major interest in translational clinical and cognitive research. For example, maladaptive behaviours, such as social anxiety disorders (SAD), may affect the responsivity to reward and may consequently trigger, e.g., substance abuse or eating disorders.
In this regard, I am particularly interested in understanding the behavioural and neural correlates of competing reward-related behaviours. At the behavioural level, I am combining social fear conditioning and food preference paradigms. At the molecular level, I am focusing on the oxytocinergic and dopaminergic systems, which are known to be critically involved in regulating anxiety and stress responses as well as motivation and reward. Strategies to untangle the underlying neural circuits controlling the choice of competing rewards involve the use of various molecular techniques (e.g., qRT-PCR, western blotting, RNA scope, immunohistochemistry) as well as pharmacological and genetic tools.