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Behavioral measurements and training of animals

Measuring the behavior of highly dynamic and complex systems such as living animals is one of the most challenging tasks of cognitive sciences. In our group we use laboratory settings to systematically investigate cognitive functions and mechanisms underlying the behavior of avian species, and in particular of domestic chicks. In addition we use well controlled behavioral tasks, both involving trained and spontaneous responses, in conjunction with neurobiological technics to study the brain circuits controlling behavior.
Neuronanatomical and histological preparations

In order to investigate the neuroanatomy and neurobiology of the avian brain, we employ techniques for fixation, cryosectioning and histological preparation of the brain tissue for visualization under microscope. This is done while preserving the correct orientation of the brain and allowing to localize specific brain areas at given stereotactic coordinates, in correspondence to brain atlases.

chicks brain
Immunohistochemistry and neuroanatomy

We use several staining procedures to distinguish specific cell types based on protein and RNA distributions, in combination with histochemical reactions to visualize neuronal structures.
Mapping neuronal activity on the basis of immediate early gene products

Immediate early genes (IEGs) are a class of genes that a rapidly expressed in response to neuronal activations and thus provide a useful tool to visualize populations of neurons activated in response to a specific behavioral task. IEG products like the c-Fos protein can be detected by immunohistochemistry. The expression of c-Fos is also involved in long-term neuronal modifications, which characterize neuronal plasticity underlying learning and memory. We frequently use this method to identify brain regions involved in control of different behaviours.
Lesioning and Tracing

A complementary technique to the visualization of IEG products is the use of focal brain lesions at stereotactically determined coordinates to inactivate specific brain regions, in order to observe the corresponding changes in behavior. This can be done with electrolytic lesions or by microinjections of chemicals. A similar technique can also be used to inject neuronal tracers to visualize afferent and efferent projections of a given brain region and investigate its neuronal connectivity.


Neuronal activity can also be directly investigated recording the neuronal action potentials in response to specific stimuli and during behavioral tasks. We use extracellular single unit recordings in combination with low field potentials to study the functional response properties of specific brain regions.