Psychology Colloquium: Dr Melissa Sharpe (Department of Psychology, UCLA)
Department of Psychology, UCLA
Title: The cognitive (lateral) hypothalamus
Abstract: The lateral hypothalamus is generally thought of as a switch that drives feeding. The idea is that if you turn on your lateral hypothalamus, you will instantaneously start eating whatever is in front of you. However, we have recently shown that this nucleus is critical for learning about the information that predicts food. This might seem like a small advance. But we were excited about this because it could mean that the lateral hypothalamus is involved in lots of other forms of learning that we haven’t thought about yet. Indeed, in this talk I will discuss data that show the lateral hypothalamus can even be recruited to learn about fearful events. Further, while the lateral hypothalamus is critical for learning about rewarding and fearful outcomes, this nucleus actively opposes learning about information that is not directly relevant to motivationally-significant outcomes (e.g. learning to associate neutral cues together). This research suggests that the lateral hypothalamus biases learning towards motivationally-significant information, and away from information that is not predictive of something important. This has led to two research directions in my lab: one that investigates how the lateral hypothalamus is integrated into the traditional fear circuit, and another that examines how changes to hypothalamic circuits present in psychological disorders might alter the balance of learning about relevant information.