On any given day in the at the NYU-ECNU Institute for Brain and Cognitive Sciences at NYU Shanghai, a team of graduate researchers go to work with nearly 100 rats and mice. Throughout the day, they might tinker around with a rodent behavior box, design tasks to delve deeper into the nitty gritty of decision-making processes, or spend time debugging code for a customized software behavioral control system.
The 100 rodents are in the Erlich Lab at the Institute, where they are trained, tested, and studied by a team of PhD students, postdoctoral fellows and research staff lead by NYU Shanghai Assistant Professor of Neural and Cognitive Sciences Jeffrey Erlich. The team studies the neurobiology of behavior: How and why the rodents move and react the way they do.
NYU Shanghai Neural Science PhD candidates, Josh Mōller-Mara, Zhu Xiaoyue, and Li Liujunli are each exploring a different aspect of decision-making in the rodent lab: the combination of perceptual and economic decision-making (Zhu), the decision-making process behind physical movements (Li) and the effect of stress on economic decision-making (Moller-Mara). While each student has a distinct research focus, Erlich said they all fit into the lab’s overarching goal of expanding our knowledge about spatial attention and decision-making and the neurobiology of these processes.
The three graduate students are among the first classes of students in NYU Shanghai’s PhD program, first launched in 2015. Mōller-Mara, who graduated from University of California, Berkeley in 2013 with degrees in computer science, cognitive science, and statistics, said he was drawn to the new program at NYU Shanghai because of the opportunity to help build the lab from the ground up, comparing it to the idea of choosing a start-up company over a major corporation.
Zhu, who graduated from the University of St. Andrews in 2016 with a bachelor’s degree in neuroscience, said she chose the Shanghai program in part for the chance to study in a place where eastern and western cultures come together, as well as to benefit from both the larger NYU network of opportunities and the small community feel of NYU Shanghai.
In the lab, Mōller-Mara, Zhu, and Li have each designed tasks to test the rodents’ decision-making skills inside a ‘behavioral box’, an acrylic, roughly 20 cm by 15 cm box designed with eight holes in one wall, meant for the rodents to stick their noses through during a test. The tests vary for each of the three sets of research, but involve different sound frequencies or lights to prompt the rodent to make a decision, often motivated by a reward.
Li, who graduated from Fudan University in 2017 with a degree in biology, is examining how the rodents plan their head movements when choosing which holes to poke and which parts of the brain, particularly the frontal lobe, are used when making these decisions. She will be presenting an abstract on related work at the Society for Neuroscience’s annual meeting in October 2019.
Li said she is interested in answering the questions, “How do we decide where to shift our attention, and if you’re going to direct your gaze to the left, what contributes to this decision to shift your attention?”
Most labs studying decision-making only present their test subjects with binary choices, Li said. But in real life, people often face decisions with much more complex choices. So, in an attempt to replicate more real-life decision-making environments , Erlich and the researchers created tests that involved a variety of choices for their rodent subjects.
“We already know that lab tests are very artificial, separate from real life,” Zhu said. “We are trying to make the tasks more like real life.”
Complex test environments have been created for monkeys, but not usually for rodents. So Erlich and his team built their own lab to run their tests, devising custom rodent behavioral boxes with hardware and software behavioral control system based on open-source designs.
“When you actually have a complete box you’ve built yourself, it’s really an achievement,” Zhu said. “Because you built everything by yourself, you really have a better understanding of how this behavior box is going to help your research.”
Because the team has built the behavioral boxes themselves, they also must fix the issues, turning Zhu, Mōller-Mara, Li, and Erlich into engineers as well as neuroscientists. Maintaining the behavioral boxes requires not only neuroscience skills but computer programming and engineering to maintain the physical boxes and the related databases for recording the rodents’ information.
“Sometimes it feels like I’m basically the maintenance guy, which can be frustrating sometimes, but it’s really a test on mental stability, which is important for PhDs and people in science in general,” Zhu said “You have to really embrace failures as part of the learning process.”
While working with rodents and one-of-a-kind lab materials has presented their own challenges, Zhu said Erlich’s guidance in the lab has provided strong leadership and support.
“Jeff is really helpful, he is doing everything,” she said. “He spends time with us to chat about our progress, our projects in the future, and also he teaches us to do hands on things, to define goals, how to use some of the tools that could be dangerous in the lab. He does a lot of tutoring.”
Working at the core of such a unique lab has been a chance to take on different responsibilities in building the lab equipment and in designing research, Mōller-Mara said. The research he and his fellow graduate students are working on in the lab also has the potential to be applied to humans in the future. For his research, Mōller-Mara wants to use the rodent data to compare it to how humans’ economic decisions are also affected by stress.
“I’m studying the neuroeconomics of risk and stress, I’m thinking about the vicious cycle of poverty, how stress can lead to bad decisions, how stress can make the problem worse,” he said.
The team hopes that the work will contribute to something greater, and perhaps even impact how policy makers address poverty.
“Currently, the debate around poverty is highly politicized,” explained Erlich. “There are those who believe the poor are poor because they are lazy or bad. If we can clearly demonstrate that chronic stress makes animals shift their behavior to be less economically efficient, maybe we can convince some politicians that anyone put under the stressful conditions of poverty might make bad decisions.”
“Although the stress and decision-making project has the most clear application, all of our research is in the service of public health,” Erlich said. “We, as a field, are expanding our knowledge of the brain at an astounding pace, but most fundamental questions about how genes, neural circuits and environment interact to create behavior are still unanswered. Cognitive impairment in aging and neurological and psychiatric disorders are all too common, and a better understanding of the neurobiology of attention and decision-making is required to address these.”