Prof. Gloria W Choi

Associate Professor of Applied Biology
Investigator, McGovern Institute

Primary DLC

Department of Brain and Cognitive Sciences

MIT Room: 46-5023C

Research Summary

Gloria Choi studies how the brain learns to recognize olfactory stimuli and associate them with appropriate behavioral responses. Using mouse models, Choi works to anatomically and functionally map the circuitry that connects sensory representations to specific behavioral outcomes, and also investigates how learning transforms this circuitry and how the brain maintains behavioral plasticity so that responses to stimuli are context-dependent. Choi joined the MIT faculty in 2013 as an assistant professor in the Department of Brain and Cognitive Sciences and a McGovern Investigator. She received her bachelor’s degree from the University of California at Berkeley, and her Ph.D. from Caltech, where she studied with David Anderson. She was a postdoc in the laboratory of Richard Axel at Columbia University.

Features central to perception in vision, touch, and hearing are topographically ordered in the sense organ and this order is maintained from the periphery to primary sensory cortices. This has led to the prevailing view that early sensory processing in these sensory modalities is mediated by developmentally programmed neural circuits. In contrast, olfactory features cannot be meaningfully represented along continuous dimensions and odorant responses in piriform display no spatial order. These observations have suggested a model in which piriform cells receive convergent input from random collections of glomeruli. As a consequence, odor representations could only be afforded behavioral significance after experience.

While in Dr. Richard Axel's laboratory, Choi developed an experimental strategy that permited us to ask whether the activation of an arbitrarily chosen subpopulation of neurons in piriform cortex could elicit different behavioral responses dependent upon experience. Indeed we observed that activation of an ensemble of piriform neurons expressing channelrhodopsin, when paired with foot shock or water reward, elicited either aversive or appetitive behaviors. Moreover, we demonstrated that different subpopulations of piriform neurons expressing channelrhodopsin could be discriminated and independently entrained to generate distinct behaviors.

In Professor Choi's own lab at MIT, she plans to dissect the brain circuits underlying this learned behavior, to understand how representations in piriform cortex can drive downstream targets to generate behavioral responses as a function of learning. I also plan to extend my approach to study social behavior, which in rodents is strongly affected by olfactory cues. One important modulator of social behavior is the hormone oxytocin, and she plans to study how oxytocin may control the mechanisms by which animals learn to attribute social significance to olfactory stimuli.

Recent Work