Systematic representations for odor space and action space

The Datta lab studies how information from the outside world is detected, encoded in the brain, and transformed into meaningful behavioral outputs. We address this fundamental problem by characterizing the olfactory system, the sensory system used by most animals to interact with their environment. Here we discuss recent results relevant to understanding sensorimotor coupling in the olfactory system. We describe results from awake population recordings in piriform cortex, the main olfactory center in the brain. By systematically probing odor space at multiple scales, we reveal fundamental principles that underlie the ability of the brain to discriminate and — crucially — to generalize amongst odors. These findings have implications for the assignment of odor quality both between and within individuals and for the generation of odor-triggered behavior. We also describe new approaches we have recently developed to understand how genes and circuits important to sensorimotor coupling in the olfactory system might impact behavior; these methods combine 3D imaging with model-based unsupervised learning to reveal the underlying structure of mouse body language. We have combined this system with physiological recordings to identify neural codes for both action components and behavioral grammar. These methods may afford insight into mechanisms that allow animals to flexibly navigate the outside world, and serve as a quantitative prism through which the function of genes and neural circuits can be understood.


Sandeep Robert Datta obtained a Bachelor of Science degree in Molecular Biochemistry and Biophysics from Yale University in 1993, and obtained an M.D./Ph.D degree from Harvard University in 2004. After working as a postdoctoral fellow at Columbia University with Richard Axel, he joined the Harvard Medical School Department of Neurobiology in 2009. His lab focuses on understanding how sensory cues — particularly odors — are detected by the nervous system, and how the brain uses information about the presence of salient sensory cues to compose complex patterns of motivated action on a moment-to-moment basis. This work involves studying genes involved in detecting odors, revealing the patterns of neural activity deep in the brain that encode sensory maps of the outside world, exploring motor circuits that transform sensory codes into action, and probing the fundamental statistical structure of behavior itself.  Dr. Datta has published numerous articles on his research in journals including Cell, Science and Nature, is a reviewer and an editor at multiple scientific journals, is an Associate Member of the Broad Institute, and is a Principal Investigator in the Italian Institute of Technology/Harvard Medical School joint program in the neurosciences. Dr. Datta has received the NIH New Innovator Award, the Burroughs Welcome Career Award in the Medical Sciences, the Alfred P. Sloan Research Fellowship, the Searle Scholars Award, the Vallee Young Investigator Award, the McKnight Endowment Fund Scholar Award and has been named a fellow of the National Academy of Science/Kavli Scholars program. In addition, Dr. Datta is a cofounder of Optogenix (which manufactures biocompatible optical fibers for recording/manipulation of the brain), Syllable Life Sciences (which has developed an advanced behavioral phenotyping platform for drug development) and Abelian Therapeutics (which is developing novel treatments for neurodegenerative disorders).