CORDIS - EU research results

Context-dependent flexibility in innate behaviours and their underlying neural circuitry

Project description

Underlying mechanisms of flexibility in innate reactions

Animal survival requires innate reactions to be fast, reliable, and flexible. The ERC-funded FLEXIN project will investigate the way by which brain circuits facilitate context-specific reactions to cues critical to survival such as threat and prey. Using a combination of viral tools, high-throughput neural recording techniques, and behaviour quantification in rodents, the study will uncover neural circuits which control changes in the animals’ adjustment to different situations. The project will analyse how diverse contexts affect these well-defined circuits and behaviours, revealing principles of context-specific flexibility, neural circuit conservation, and brain region adaptation to environmental changes.


Avoiding danger and approaching food are essential and highly conserved behaviours. To ensure an animal’s survival, such innate reactions need to be fast and reliable. However, in an everchanging environment, not only reliability, but also flexibility is required. How brain circuits are organized to allow for context-specific, flexible behaviour remains an open fundamental question. Here I propose experiments that dissect how brain circuits mediate context-specific reactions to survival-critical cues including threat and prey. A unique combination of viral tools, high-throughput neural recording techniques, and quantification of behaviour in different rodent species, will reveal how neural circuits can encode changes in the animal’s context and adjust to different situations. The strengths of this proposal are twofold: First, this research will make use of the reliable framework of innate behaviours that do not require learning, and which can be elicited with simple visual stimuli to assess flexibility. Second, I will compare the impact of three different contexts on these behaviours and their underlying circuits: How does ambient light affect innate reactions? How do animals respond to threat at different times of the day? How have species that evolved in different ecological niches developed distinct avoidance behaviours? Comparing the impact of these internal and external, transient and permanent contexts on the same, well-defined circuits and behaviours will, first, reveal general principles of context-specific flexibility; second, dissect whether neural circuits that underly similar behaviours are conserved across species; and third, determine which parts of the brain are most likely to adjust when changes in the environment requires behavioural flexibility. Together, this work will reveal how flexible behaviours are created in the brain and may provide a framework to assess cause and treatment of lack of such flexibility, e.g. in anxiety disorders.

Host institution

Net EU contribution
€ 1 544 651,00
34136 Trieste

See on map

Nord-Est Friuli-Venezia Giulia Trieste
Activity type
Higher or Secondary Education Establishments
Total cost
€ 1 544 651,00

Beneficiaries (1)