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Sandeep Robert Datta, PhD

Department of Neurobiology, Harvard Medical School

The goal of the Datta laboratory is to address how is the brain extracts information from the environment and converts that information into action.


Animals in the real world have to adapt to changes in sensory cues on timescales of 1s-10s of milliseconds with behavioral responses organized at timescales of 10s-100s of milliseconds. Every time the animal changes its pose or moves its body, its sensory world is reset and has to be sampled anew. From these complex and inter-dependent sensorimotor dynamics arise adaptive patterns of moment-to-moment action that enable animals to interact with the environment in a meaningful manner. Revealing how the brain addresses this challenge requires understanding how neural codes for sensation and action are built, how they interact, and how they are decoded to facilitate the generation of organized and goal-oriented behaviors that evolve coherently over time.


The main hypothesis of the laboratory is that we can gain leverage on this physiological problem by studying neural circuits that underlie stimulus-driven innate behaviors. Given that olfaction is the primary sense used by most animals to communicate with their environment, we focus on characterizing those circuits that enable animals to detect and respond to olfactory cues. Sensory information propagating through this system can drive complex solitary and social behaviors, alter neuroendocrine states and act as unconditioned stimuli to facilitate learning. To understand how information about these sensory cues is translated into action, we study corticostriatal circuits responsible for expressing behavioral components and sequences, and we ask how sensory information modulates the function of these circuits. The motor behaviors elicited by odors both in the real world and in the laboratory are rich in dynamics, and offer a powerful window into how the brain creates adaptive patterns of action.


Although our perspective has been deeply shaped by ethology, we work in the lab and not the field. Therefore, much of our work is about bringing the field to the lab — studying mice in as naturalistic a context as we possibly can — in the belief that understanding the brain requires exploring those purposes for which the brain evolved. We use the entire armamentarium of modern neuroscience techniques, ranging from molecular genetics to machine learning, from large-scale electrophysiology to 3D behavioral imaging. Our work has identified new molecular receptors for ethologically-relevant odors, novel circuits that couple together innate and learned behaviors, organizational principles that govern the organization of sensory information in brain networks, and an underlying syntactical structure to action that is organized on the millisecond timescale, and is explicitly represented by corticostriatial circuits. Current work in the lab focuses on developing closed-loop systems that allow us to manipulate neural activity in response to freely-expressed behaviors, decoding — prying open the circuits that choose which action an animal expresses at any given moment in time, and asking how sensory information percolates into those circuits to influence the global statistics of behavior — and on better understanding how action influences sensation. By using ethology as a lever, we hope to address the fundamental problem of how the brain enables animals to interact with the world.

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The Lab


Stan Pashkovski

Postdoctoral Fellow


David Bran

Graduate Student


Jeffrey Markowitz

Postdoctoral Fellow


Johanna Rajotte

Co-op Student


Maya Jay

Graduate Student


Maria (Masha) Bloom

Graduate Student


Winthrop Gillis

Graduate Student


Caleb Weinreb

Postdoctoral Fellow


Jeffrey Wood

Co-op Student


Alia Newman-Boulle

Co-op Student


Neha Bhagat

Lab Manager


Veroniki (Veronica) Nikolaki

Lab Technician


Rockwell Anyoha

Graduate Student


Alexandra Bespalko

Co-op Student


Ayman Zeine

Senior Computer Scientist


Tatsuya Tsukahara

Postdoctoral Fellow


Emalee Peterson

Research Assistant


Slater Sharp

Graduate Student


Utsab Majumdar

Visiting Master's Student

Selected Publications

Structure and flexibility in cortical representations of odor space
Pashkovski SL, Iurilli G, Brann D, Chicharro D, Drummey K, Franks KM, Panzeri S, and Datta SR (2020)
Nature 583:253-58 [pdf]


COVID-19 and the chemical senses: supporting players take center stage
Cooper KW, Brann DH, Farruggia MC, Bhutani S, Pellegrino R, Tsukahara T, Weinreb C, Joseph PV, Larson ED, Parma V, Albers MW, Barlow LA, Datta SR, and Di Pizio A (2020)

Neuron 107:219-233. [pdf]


Non-neuronal expression of SARS-CoV-2 entry genes in the olfactory system suggests mechanisms underlying COVID-19-associated anosmia
Brann DH, Tsukahara T, Weinreb C, Lipovsek M, Van den Berge K, Gong B, Chance R, Macaulay IC, Chou H, Fletcher RB, Das D, Street K, Roux de Bezieux H, Choi YG, Risso D, Dudoit S, Purdom E, Mill J, Hachem RA, Matsunami H, Logan DW, Goldstein BJ, Grubb MS, Ngai J, and Datta SR (2020)
Science Adv. 6:eabc5801 [pdf]

Finding the brain in the nose
Brann DH and Datta SR (2020)
Ann. Rev. Neurosci. 43:277 [pdf]


Renewal and differentiation of GCD necklace olfactory sensory neurons
Bloom ML, Johnston LB, and Datta SR (2020)
Chem Senses 45:333-46 [pdf]


Computational Neuroethology: A Call to Action
Datta SR, Anderson DJ, Branson K, Perona P, Leifer A (2019)
Neuron 104:11-24 [pdf]


The striatum specifies the statistics of behavior
Markowitz JE, and Datta SR (2019)
Neuropsychopharmacology 45:222-223 [pdf]


BehaveNet: nonlinear embedding and Bayesian neural decoding of behavioral videos
Batty E, Whiteway MR, Saxena S, Biderman D, Abe T, Musall S, Gillis W, Markowitz JE, Churchland A, Cunningham J, Datta SR, Linderman SL, Paninski L (2019)
NeurIPS 2019 [pdf]


Q&A: Understanding the composition of behavior
Datta SR (2019)
BMC Biol. 2019 May 29;17(1):44. doi: 10.1186/s12915-019-0663-3. [pdf]


The Striatum Organizes 3D Behavior via Moment-to- Moment Action Selection
Markowitz JE, Gillis WF, Beron CC, Neufeld SQ, Robertson K, Bhagat ND, Peterson RE, Peterson E, Hyun M, Linderman SW, Sabatini BL, and Datta SR. (2018)
Cell. 2018 Jun 28;174(1):44-58.e17. doi: 10.1016/j.cell.2018.04.019. Epub 2018 May 17. [pdf]


Filopodia Conduct Target Selection in Cortical Neurons Using Differences in Signal Kinetics of a Single Kinase
Mao YT, Zhu JX, Hanamura K, Iurilli G, Datta SR, Dalva MB. (2018)
Neuron. 2018 May 16;98(4):767-782.e8. doi: 10.1016/j.neuron.2018.04.011. Epub 2018 May 3. [pdf]

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