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Please join us on Friday, January 20th at 12:00pm CST, virtually via Zoom or in DRCI-1006; Dr. Michael Halassa will present a seminar titled "Thalamic Regulation of Prefontal Dynamics for Cognitive Control" on behalf of UNMC's Cognitive Neuroscience of Development and Aging (CoNDA) Center. 

Talk abstract: Interactions between the thalamus and cortex are critical for normal cognition. Although classical theories emphasize its role in transmitting signals to or between cortical areas, recent studies show that the thalamus modulates cortical function through additional mechanisms. In this talk, I will discuss findings that highlight the role of the mediodorsal (MD) thalamus in regulating prefrontal excitatory/inhibitory balance and effective connectivity during decision making. I will present recently published data showing that the MD thalamus dynamically adjusts prefrontal evidence integration according to incoming stimulus statistics. I will also present unpublished data showing how the thalamus may be a nexus for handling distinct types of task uncertainty. Given that MD-PFC interactions are known to be perturbed in schizophrenia, these findings may be relevant to suboptimal management of uncertainty that leads to aberrant beliefs. If time allows, I will present early collaborative work in that domain.

Michael Halassa’s research is focused on the neural basis of cognitive control and flexibility, particularly as it relates to attention and decision making. To study these questions, he has developed behavioral models of cognitive function in mice, allowing him to probe the underlying neural circuits and computations using parametric behavior, electrophysiological recordings, and causal manipulations. His major current thematic focus is understanding the function of the thalamus, traditionally considered a ‘relay station’ for sending sensory information to the cortex. Halassa's work has revealed previously unrecognized roles for the thalamus in initiating, sustaining, and switching cortical cognitive representations, making it clear that the thalamus plays central role in cognitive control and flexibility. In addition to this basic science focus, and in collaboration with Guoping Feng, the two labs recently showed that thalamic inhibition is a mechanism for filtering sensory inputs, and that it can be an important target for treating noise hypersensitivity in disorders like autism and ADHD.

Halassa is also a board-certified psychiatrist with fellowship training in psychotic disorders. Motivated by this clinical training, Halassa studies how the brain generates hypotheses about the world and how these hypotheses may be corrupted by disease processes. Halassa suggests that an inability to switch between different hypotheses may be at the root of schizophrenia and related disorders. For example, individuals with schizophrenia may make assumptions about the world that are highly improbable, and have difficulty updating such beliefs, even in the presence of concrete information. By developing perceptual tasks in animals that capture the underlying basic cognitive operations, the Halassa Lab aims to understand how the healthy brain generates such hypotheses and why the diseased brain has difficulty changing or revising them.

Originally from Jordan, Halassa received his PhD from the University of Pennsylvania, and was a postdoc in the laboratory of Matt Wilson at MIT, while also doing a residency in psychiatry at Massachusetts General Hospital. He joined the NYU faculty in 2014. Halassa has received many prestigious fellowships and awards for his work, including most recently the 2017 Vilcek Prize for Creative Promise, a national award given to immigrants who early in their careers have made “lasting contributions to American society through their extraordinary achievements in biomedical research."

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