Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine

Kahnt Laboratory

Our Research

Every day we make numerous goal-directed decision that are associated with positive and negative consequences. Behavior is adaptive if we make choices that help us to obtain rewarding outcomes and avoid aversive outcomes. Research in the lab focuses on the brain circuits that enable humans to make such choices, including food-based decisions. We study the brain regions involved in goal-directed behavior that signal expected outcomes, and how sich neural representations change in light of new experience and changes in the internal state of the organism (hunger and satiety). For this we use a variety of experimental techniques including pattern-based functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI), diffusion imaging, and computational modeling.

In order to provide biologically relevant rewards, much of our research involves food odors. Food odors enable us to manipulate reward identity independently of reward value, allowing us to study representations of identity-specific outcomes. For this the lab houses two custom-built, MR-compatible olfactometers.

Our research relates to clinical work in the Neurology Department by exploring the neural basis of goal-directed behavior, which is disrupted in many neurological and psychiatric disorders such as Parkinson’s disease, frontotemporal dementia, addiction, obsessive-compulsive disorder, and post-traumatic stress. An ultimate goal of our research is to provide the basis for novel diagnostic markers and treatment strategies for these conditions.

Current Projects

Identity-specific coding of future rewards

We study the neural circuits that support signaling of specific future outcomes. That is, even if two choice outcomes are comparable in terms of how good they are, their specific identity is an important component for making goal-directed choices. For instance, foraging decisions need to be based on the current state of the organism and therefore require representations of the specific identity of food items. A key region for identity-specific coding is the orbitofrontal cortex. Our experiments use food odors (e.g., dulce de leche vs. sautéed onions) and pattern-based functional imaging to study how specific outcomes are represented in the human orbitofrontal cortex, and how these representations change with changes in the internal state of the organism. This research is fundamental for understanding brain disorders in which adaptive behavior is disrupted, such as eating disorders and addiction.

Howard JD, Gottfried JA, Tobler PN, Kahnt T. Identity-specific coding of future rewards in the human orbitofrontal cortexProc Natl Acad Sci USA 2015, 112(16):5195-200. PMID: 25848032

Howard JD, Kahnt T. Identity-Specific Reward Representations in Orbitofrontal Cortex Are Modulated by Selective DevaluationJ Neurosci. 2017 Mar 8;37(10):2627-2638. PMID: 28159906

Neurocomputational mechanisms of generalization

Generalization and inference allows us to apply knowledge that we have learned for specific stimuli to novel situations. An important trade-off exists between generalization and discrimination. While generalizing from previous experience can help us to behave more efficiently, discrimination prevents us from exhibiting stereotypical or maladaptive responses. In order to understand the computations contributing to generalization, we utilize mathematical models that allow us to formulate precise hypotheses and generate testable predictions for our neural data. A set of interconnected brain regions including the dopaminergic midbrain, the striatum and the hippocampus, is thought to support generalization. We study interactions between these brain regions and their specific contribution to generalization using a diverse set of experimental methods including pharmacology, non-invasive brain stimulation, and functional imaging. These studies provide insights into the mechanisms controlling the trade-off between generalization and discrimination and may provide a better understanding of several neuropsychiatric disorders in which generalization is disrupted, such as addiction, schizophrenia, anxiety disorders, and posttraumatic stress (PTSD). 

Kahnt T, Park SQ, Burke CJ, Tobler PN. How glitter relates to gold: similarity-dependent reward prediction errors in the human striatumJournal of Neuroscience 2012 Nov 14; 32(46):16521-9. PMID: 23152634

Kahnt T, Tobler PN. 2016. Dopamine regulates stimulus generalization in the human hippocampuseLife;5:e12678

Connectivity of the human orbitofrontal cortex

We study the anatomical and functional connectivity of the brain regions involved in olfactory reward processing, including the orbitofrontal and piriform cortex, the amygdala, and the striatum. For this we use measures of anatomical (diffusion tensor and diffusion spectrum imaging), functional, and information-based connectivity (resting-state and task-based fMRI connectivity). The overall goal of this research is to characterize the functional roles of anatomical connections among olfactory brain regions. These results may provide insights into the nature of degeneration associated with age-related disorders such as Alzheimer’s disease and fronto-temporal dementia.

Kahnt T, Chang LJ, Park SQ, Heinzle J, Haynes JD. Connectivity-based parcellation of the human orbitofrontal cortexJournal of Neuroscience 2012 May 2; 32(18):6240-50. PMID: 22553030

Kahnt T, Tobler PN. Dopamine modulates the functional organization of the orbitofrontal cortex. Journal of Neuroscience  2017 Feb 8;37(6):1493-1504; PMID: 28069917.

Our Facilities

Our lab is equipped with two custom-built, MR-compatible olfactometers ("Benjamin" and "Rosie") to deliver appetitive food-odors directly to the nose of hungry human subjects. To measure breathing, a MR-compatible breathing belt and a spirometer is available to use in behavioral and fMRI studies. Neuroimaging is performed on the Siemens 3-Tesla PRISMA system at the Center for Translational Imaging (CTI), Department of Radiology, Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine.