Date published: 10/1/2019

Our lab studies how electrical activity in the brain mediates cognition and behavior, one of the most exciting—and challenging—questions facing neuroscientists and psychologists today.

The Wikenheiser lab endeavors to understand how the brain mediates behavior. We tackle this question by measuring the activity of large numbers of neurons as rats perform cognitively-demanding behavioral tasks. We then use mathematical techniques to analyze the relationship between rats’ behavior and the activity of neurons in the brain.

One aspect of cognition that we find particularly interesting is decision making, the process by which organisms choose how to allocate their time and effort toward obtaining valuable resources and avoiding negative consequences. Studies of decision making in rats have been a mainstay in psychology since at least the 1930s, when Tolman famously declared that any important question about cognition could be studied effectively in rats solving maze-based analogies of more complex, human problems. We follow in this tradition, designing behavioral tasks with translational relevance to human behavior and attempting to puzzle out their neural mechanisms using modern, cutting-edge approaches for measuring and manipulating neural activity.

In addition to developing tasks that model human decision making, we also take a more ethological approach, endeavoring to understand how the rat brain works in solving rat-relevant problems that arise in natural situations. Specifically, we are developing new ways to test models of foraging decisions developed by behavioral ecologists. This work provides a natural complement to traditional psychology and neuroscience methods for studying decision making in the laboratory setting.

You can find out more about our work at the lab website: https://wikenheiserlab.psych.ucla.edu/

Before arriving in Los Angeles, I spent a lot of time in the middle and eastern parts of the United States. I grew up in rural North Dakota in a small town called Linton, and then moved to Bismarck, capitol city and home of the University of Mary, for my undergraduate education. After graduation, I spent a year on the east coast, working in a lab at the National Institutes of Health, before returning to the Midwest for graduate school at the University of Minnesota. With my Ph.D. in hand, I moved back east for postdoctoral training at the National Institute on Drug Abuse in Baltimore, before finally making the journey to the west, to begin a faculty position at UCLA in 2018.

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