Social interactions across the animal kingdom, from courtship rituals and aggressive
interactions to spoken conversation, are wondrously complex - they necessarily involve back-
and-forth feedback between nervous systems transmitted through multiple sensory modalities
and each animal's behavior. Typical experiments in this field observe only a tiny fraction of the
activity in any neuronal circuit, and then only under a very limited range of behavioral conditions.
To overcome this limitation, the proposed research leverages the compact nervous system of
Drosophila melanogaster, combined with its wealth of genetic tools, to study the dynamic
behavioral interactions and detailed neural mechanisms that underlie courtship between males
and females. The project combines unbiased measurement of behavior, neural circuit
manipulations, neural recordings in behaving animals, and sophisticated computational models.
The specific aims include: i) elucidating the computations that the brain performs during
courtship by mapping the sensorimotor transformations underlying male and female interactions
over time via quantitative behavioral assays and the generation of predictive models; ii)
combining models with neural perturbations to map the underlying circuits that govern the link
between sensory inputs and behaviors; And, iii) testing the models of neural control during
courtship by monitoring neural activity in behaving animals experiencing fictive courtship stimuli
in a virtual-reality apparatus. This work will substantially advance our understanding of how two
interacting brains process and transfer information, and will uncover general principles of neural
circuit function that will inform studies of sensorimotor integration in more complex animals,
such as rodents and humans. The project will also produce new experimental and theoretical
tools for studying social behaviors. Finally, it will shed light on the mechanisms that go awry in
several disorders, including Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD), in which sensory perception
becomes disentangled from motor outputs – these disorders have profound effects on cognitive
well-being and a major impact on public health.