Sebastian Haesler Lab

Research focus

​The long-term goal of our lab is to understand how animals learn from experience and how they subsequently use this knowledge to guide behavior. One form of learning, commonly observed in humans and animals, relies on the reinforcing effect of rewarding or aversive experience. As a result of such learning, sensory cues, behavioral responses or specific actions become associated with positive or negative values, which is critical for seeking resources and avoiding danger.

In a dynamically changing environment it is also important to identify the boundaries of current knowledge, in order to initiate new learning whenever necessary. Consistent with this idea, humans and animals are capable of rapidly detecting novelty, taking as little as 85ms in humans. Novel stimuli trigger distinct orienting and exploratory behaviors, which habituate after only a few exposures, suggesting a very rapid form of memory formation. Moreover, animal learning theories postulate that the rate of learning depends on the degree to which rewards or punishments are novel, thus also highlighting the importance of novelty for learning.

Research in our lab focuses on the neural mechanisms underlying the two problems described above: 

  1. What circuit computations are involved in learning from reward and punishment? 
  2. What are the mechanisms for novelty detection and behavioral novelty responses?

Previous studies have identified key brain areas and neuromodulatory systems involved in reinforcement learning and novelty processing. However, a mechanistic description of how different neurons, interacting dynamically within local and larger scale circuits, mediate learning and generate behavioral responses is currently lacking. We approach this problem using a combination of multielectrode recording and optogenetic techniques in awake, behaving mice. By genetically tagging specific neuronal populations for electrophysiological identification and manipulation, this approach allows for the precise characterization of the firing properties of defined neuron types and for testing the causal contribution of their firing for specific aspects of behavior. By complementing this approach with anatomical circuit mapping using viral tracing tools, we aim at revealing some of the neural computations involved in learning and decision making.

Disturbances in reinforcement learning and novelty processing have been linked to human pathological conditions including schizophrenia, depression and autism, as well as human personality traits associated with maladaptive behaviors such as addiction. Therefore, our research program also has implications for understanding these mental diseases and may ultimately support the development of novel interventional strategies.

> video on basic research on nanotech meets biotech - Sebastian Haesler - ©VIB, 2015


IR thermography-based monitoring of respiration phase without image segmentationMutlu K Rabell J. E Martin del Olmo Pamela Haesler SebastianJOURNAL OF NEUROSCIENCE METHODS, 301, 1-8, 2018
Proximal and distal modulation of neural activity by spatially confined optogenetic activation with an integrated high-density optoelectrodeLibbrecht S Hoffman L Welkenhuysen M Van Den Haute C Baekelandt V Braeken D* Haesler S*JOURNAL OF NEUROPHYSIOLOGY, 120, 149-161, 2018* or °: authors contributed equally
Spontaneous Rapid Odor Source Localization Behavior Requires Interhemispheric CommunicationEsquivelzeta Rabell José Mutlu Aytac Kadir Noutel dos Santos Joao Manuel Martin del Olmo Pamela Haesler SebastianCURRENT BIOLOGY, 27, 1542-1548 e4, 2017
Neurotechnology and Society: Strengthening Responsible Innovation in Brain ScienceGarden H Bowman D. M Haesler Sebastian Winickoff D. ENEURON, 92, 642-646, 2016
Neuron-type-specific signals for reward and punishment in the ventral tegmental areaCohen J. D Haesler Sebastian Vong L Lowell B. B Uchida NNATURE, 482, 85-8, 2012

Job openings


Novelty speeds up learning thanks to dopamine activation

05/02/2020 - Brain scientists led by Sebastian Haesler (NERF, empowered by imec, KU Leuven and VIB) identified a causal mechanism of how novel stimuli promote learning. Novelty directly activates the dopamine system, which is responsible for associative learning.

Researchers discover mechanism behind rapid smell source localization

22/05/2017 - Scientists at NERF have provided fundamental insights into mechanism of smell localization. This marks an important step in unraveling the entire neural odor localization mechanism, which is highly valuable to the study of memory diseases.

Sebastian Haesler

Sebastian Haesler

Research area(s)

Model organism(s)


​PhD: Max Planck Institute for Molecular Genetics, Germany, '01-'06
Postdoc: Harvard University, US, '07-'12
VIB Group Leader since 2012

Contact Info

NERF, empowered by IMEC, KU Leuven and VIBImec CampusKapeldreef 75 3001 LEUVENRoute description