Social Systems and Circuits Group

Social Systems and Circuits Group

Alison Barker

Communication is an essential part of our daily lives. Our ability to communicate shapes our interactions with our environment and with members of our social groups. Our research is focused on identifying neural mechanisms for the processing and production of socially meaningful communication, with a particular focus on vocal communication. We aim to understand how information is transferred within social groups through vocal cues and how brain circuits have evolved to extract and use these socially relevant signals. Questions of particular interest include: How do we distinguish sounds with social meaning in noisy environments with highly similar acoustic signals? How do we identify the voice of specific individuals within our social groups? And ultimately, how does vocal communication facilitate cooperation? 

Currently our research is divided into three main areas: (1) Sensory Encoding of socially meaningful vocalizations (linking acoustic and vocal signals to neural activity), (2) Plasticity of Circuits for vocal communication (how genes and social experience shape neural circuit properties) and (3) Information Transfer within social units (what types of information are transmitted between individuals and how this information is used to shape future behavioral decisions). Our research adopts a broad evolutionary perspective, studying vocal communication in the naked mole-rat (Heterocephalus glaber), a highly vocal and highly social rodent which lives in large multi-generational colonies under the rule of a single breeding female, queen.

We employ a multi-disciplinary approach using:

  • In vivo calcium imaging
  • In vivo electrophysiology
  • Information theory
  • Machine learning
  • Neuroethology
  • Transcriptomics and proteomics

Open Positions: We are hiring!

We are actively recruiting highly motivated graduate students and postdocs. Please e-mail for information.

Selected publications

DOI Barker, A.J., Koch, U., Lewin, G.R., Pyott S. (2021) Hearing and vocalizations in the naked mole- rat. In R. Buffenstein, T. Park, M. Holmes (Eds.), The Extraordinary Biology of the Naked Mole-Rat, Springer.
DOI Barker, A.J.*, Veviurko, G., Bennett, N.C., Hart, D.W., Mograby, L., and Lewin, G.R*.  Cultural transmission of vocal dialect in the naked mole-rat. Science  371, 503–507. (2021). *co-corresponding authors
DOI Barker, A.J., and Baier, H. (2015). Sensorimotor decision making in the zebrafish tectum. Curr.Biol. 25, 2804–2814.

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