Interoception is a key component of emotion and a major determinant of mental health. Contreras´ lab focuses on understanding how interacting groups of neurons represent internal body states and how these sensory representations affect complex social behaviors. Contreras is particularly interested in understanding how disrupted processing of signals in the insular cortex, the brain’s central hub for interoception, contributes to the development of psychiatric disorders. Understanding more about how the brain senses and integrates all aspects of the body´s physiology could help treat brain disorders in which interoception is dysfunctional, including drug addiction, psychopathy, and anxiety.
As an Innovation Fund investigator, Contreras is collaborating with the lab of José Luis Valdés, Ph.D., to explore the neurological mechanisms behind psychopathy, a personality disorder that is characterized by antisocial behavior and lack of empathy. A specific part of the brain known as the insular cortex regulates empathy and social behaviors; however, it is unclear how abnormalities and reduced neural activity in this region can cause psychopathic behavior. Combining their expertise in behavioral neuroscience, optogenetics, and electrophysiology, the pair will dissect key neural and molecular players that regulate empathy in a first-of-its-kind rodent model of psychopathy. This work has important implications for understanding why certain individuals are prone to commit violent crime and will provide new knowledge for the basis of antisocial and violent behavior, in addition to offering an opportunity to therapeutically target these conditions.