We study how animals use information to make behavioral decisions. We use the foraging of the small roundworm C. elegans as a model for an ecologically relevant behavior. To successfully forage, the animal needs to combine sensory information obtained from its environment with information about its own behavioral state. We follow this information flow experimentally using behavioral assays, neural activity imaging, optogenetics and genetic perturbations. Ultimately, we want to understand how animals integrate multiple sources of information and how this drives their foraging strategy.

Our research program encompasses three main directions:

Picture showing neural network of C. elegans

Information bottlenecks

Systems neuroscience, Signal processing, Neural Coding

Neural circuits receive many inputs, either from the outside world or from sensors encoding the current state of the organism. These inputs range from internal states such as satiety and proprioception, to external factors such as touch and food level. This multi-dimensional information needs to be compressed to reduce the signal complexity and to eventually drive a coherent behavioral output. One likely spot where such compression happens are neural bottleneck - those are circuits where many inputs are mapped to much fewer neurons and then expand again to signal to many outputs. We use an anatomical bottleneck in C. elegans to study the principles behind information flow in neural bottlenecks.

Organization of coupled behaviors

Animal behavior, Motor coordination, Control theory

To effectively interact with an environment, different behaviors need to be temporally coordinated. How animals are able to coordinate multiple behaviors into complex action sequences is an open question in neuroscience. In the worm C. elegans the neural basis of behavioral coordination can be investigated using foraging behavior which is essential for the survival of an animal. Foraging behavior relies on the coupling of locomotion and feeding to effectively seek out resource rich areas and exploit them. Both feeding and locomotion have been studied separately, but due to the range of time and length scales involved, their coordination has not been examined.

Worm feeding on plastic spheres
Worm feeding on plastic spheres

Molecular model of a small neuromuscular circuit

Oscillations, Channel dynamics, Simulations

The pharynx of the worm is an exceptionally well characterized neuromuscular system. Inspired by the connectome, the measured electrophysiological properties of the muscle channels and the electropharyngeograms, we aim to build a computational model of the pharyngeal muscle responsible for pumping and its neural inputs.

Group members

Monika Scholz

Monika Scholz

group leader

I am interested in understanding principles of information coding in simple neural networks.

Luis Alvarez

Luis Alvarez


I build optical tools to investigate neural coding in worms.

Barbara Schlögl

Barbara Schlögl


I model the muscle - neuron interactions in the pharynx.

Jun Liu

Jun Liu


I use molecular tools to label neurons in the worm.

Elsa Bonnard

Elsa Bonnard

Graduate student

I study how stimuli are encoded in a neural bottleneck.


Selected Publications

The role of food odor in invertebrate foraging

Nicolina Zjacic and Monika Scholz

(Genes, Brain & Behavior, 2022)

Turning away from danger

J Liu and M Scholz

(ELife, 2020)

Predicting natural behavior from whole-brain neural dynamics

M Scholz, AN Linder, F Randi, AK Sharma, X Yu, JW Shaevitz, A Leifer

(bioRxiv, 445643 2018)

Stochastic feeding dynamics arise from the need for information and energy

M Scholz, AR Dinner, E Levine and, D Biron

(PNAS 114 (35) 2017)

A scalable method for measuring pharyngeal pumping
in C. elegans

M Scholz, DS Lynch, KS Lee, E Levine and, D Biron

(J Neuro Methods 274 2016)

Distinct unfolded protein responses mitigate or mediate effects of nonlethal deprivation of C. elegans sleep in different tissues

J Sanders*, Monika Scholz*, I Merutka and D Biron

(BMC Biology 15(1) 2017)

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