Nowadays, social interaction occurs frequently in virtual environments (VRs) such as social media and multi-player online video games. In VRs, classical social cues such as facial expressions, hand gestures and body contact are often absent. We are interested in identifying sensory cues that are critical for a prolonged involvement in VRs. The focus of the lab will be studying how the brain processes social information during interaction with virtual conspecifics. This research can have a direct impact on issues such as video game and internet addiction.
Using visual VRs, we will construct virtual animals to interact with the real animal. Since the behavior of virtual animals can be precisely controlled, we can analyze how factors such as response delay or response predictability will affect the intensity and the duration of social interaction.
We use adult zebrafish as a vertebrate animal model to study brain functions during behaviors. Adult zebrafish has a rich repertoire of learning and social behaviors while the brain is small enough for large-scale analyses of neuronal activity using optical methods. We will focus our analyses on the interaction between brain regions that are proposed to be involved in controlling emotion, memory and decision making.
One of our working hypotheses is that prediction plays a critical role in social interaction. We aim to identify neuronal populations that encode prediction signals and prediction error signals during social interaction. We will also analyze these neural signals in zebrafish with mutations in autism related genes. The research project may provide a novel and mechanistic understanding on how psychiatric diseases arise at a neural circuit level.