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Integrative Neuroscience Group

Group Head: Bernard Balleine

We use functional data from studies of the brain to better understand the complex neural networks that mediate specific psychological capacities.

Current Projects

The projects currently on offer in the lab focus on three key aspects of instrumental conditioning: (i) the acquisition of goal-directed actions in rodents and humans; (ii) the acquisition of habitual actions; and (iii) the motivational control of instrumental conditioning. To advance these issues we are examining integrated neural systems and circuits using sophisticated behavioral and circuit-level tools including cellular activity and neurotransmitter-release using fibre-photonics and endoscopic imaging in vivo, and using patch clamp electrophysiology and reconstructive microscopy ex vivo. We use pharmacology, DREADDs and optogenetics to establish the causal effects of local circuit manipulation on specific psychological functions.


General reference:

Balleine, B.W. (2019). The meaning of behavior: Discriminating reflex and volition in the brain. Neuron, Oct 9;104(1):47-62. Read More.

1. How are new goal directed actions acquired?

We have a long-standing interest in the role of various circuits in the brain in the acquisition of goal-directed actions. In this domain we are particularly concerned with the learning rules that support the process of action-outcome association and how these rules are implemented in the brain. We are interested in the earliest encoding and consolidation processes engaged during the first session of acquisition, the types of memory processes involved, and how this form of learning is ultimately stabilized into longer-term memory.

1.1 The cortical-hippocampal circuit. The earliest encoding of action outcome associations appears to involve the prelimbic cortex and its connections with the dorsal hippocampus in what may be described as a form of episodic declarative memory; perhaps as a kind of buffer for working memory. We have recently become interested in the role of the dorsal hippocampus in early stage goal-directed learning and in investigating the role of circuits connecting hippocampus and prefrontal cortex in this process.

Key reference:

Bradfield, L.A., Leung, B.K., Bolt, S. & Balleine B.W. (2020). Goal-directed actions transiently depend on dorsal hippocampus. Nature Neuroscience, Read More.


1.2 The corticostriatal circuit.  Output from the prelimbic cortex to posterior dorsomedial striatum is critical to the longer-term encoding of action-outcome associations. Our recent research suggests that output from intratelencephalic neurons in the prelimbic cortex is pivotal. Projects in the lab investigating the processing by these neurons and their targets in the striatum are developing to advance our understanding of the striatal learning processes engaged during the acquisition of new goal-directed actions.


Key reference:

Hart, G., Bradfield, L.A., Fok, S., Chieng, B. & Balleine, B.W. (2018). The bilateral prefronto-striatal pathway is necessary for learning new goal-directed actions. Current Biology, July 23; 28(14), 2218-2229. Read More.

1.3 The thalamostriatal circuit. The midline thalamus projects strongly to the dorsomedial striatum where it influences modulatory processes involving both dopamine and cholinergic function. These modulatory processes influence local plasticity particularly when circumstances changes. We have been investigating the role of these inputs in controlling local plasticity, particularly the locus of plasticity, and are interested in further developing this project to examine changes in local circuits directly when instrumental contingencies change, new learning occurs, and this learning has to be integrated with existing learning.


Key reference:

Bradfield, L.A., Bertran-Gonzalez, J., Chieng B. & Balleine, B.W. (2013). The thalamo-striatal pathway and the cholinergic control of goal-directed action: Interlacing new and existing action-outcome associations in the striatum. Neuron, 79, 153-166. Read More.


1.5 Goal-directed action in humans in health and disease.  We have developed computer-based tasks to study goal-directed and habitual action in humans inspired by the tasks used to study these processes in rodents. The tasks can be conducted as a battery in person or on-line and so can be conducted on healthy or patient groups of various kinds. We are interested in further developing these tasks, testing human capacities and collaborating to assess abnormal groups.


Key reference:

Morris, R.M., Quail, S., Griffiths, K., Green M.J. & Balleine, B.W. (2015). Corticostriatal control of goal-directed action is impaired in schizophrenia. Biological Psychiatry, Jan 15;77(2):187-95. Read More.

1.4 The stabilization of goal-directed action for action selection, evaluation and execution.  The role of striatal and basal ganglia interactions with orbitofrontal cortex and cortical motor circuits is critical for the stabilization of goal-directed action but we have very sparse information on how this is achieved. Here we are particularly interested in developing projects to investigate retrieval-related action selection involving OFC, the integration with evaluative signals involving amygdala and action execution via inputs to frontal motor circuits.


Key reference:

Hart, G., Leung, B.K. & Balleine (2014). Dorsal and ventral streams: The distinct role of striatal subregions in the acquisition and performance of goal-directed actions. Neurobiology of Learning & Memory, 108, 104-118. Read More.

2. The neural bases of habitual actions.

We have a long standing interest in understanding the neural bases of S-R learning and reinforcement processes. We are also interested in exploring the natural development of habitual sequences of actions and the process by which these sequences are chunked into chains of actions in rodent and human subjects.


Key reference:

Balleine, B.W. & Dezfouli, A. (2019). Hierarchical action control: Adaptive collaboration between actions and habits. Frontiers in Psychology, Dec 11;10:2735. Read More.

3. The motivational control of instrumental conditioning. 

The origins of reward in primary motivation are well established but how this relationship is instantiated in the brain remains something of a mystery. In fact, the psychological impact of manipulations of primary motivation has received remarkably little attention in the last 20—30 years and is an important and developing area of interest in the lab.


Key reference:

Balleine, B.W. (2018). The motivation of action and the origin of reward. In R.W. Morris, A.M. Bornstein & A. Shenhav (Eds) Goal-Directed Decision Making: Computations and Neural Circuits, Chapter 20. Amsterdam: Elsevier. Read More.

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