Rhanor Gillette

Profile picture for Rhanor  Gillette

Contact Information

414 Burrill Hall
Emeritus Professor

Research Interests


• Neuronal mechanisms of decision in circuit, cell, metabolism, and genome • Directed evolution of brain circuits for cognition and sociality • Computational simulations of choice, esthetic sense, and emerging behavioral complexity • Comparative neurobiology of the predatory sea-slug Pleurobranchaea and the octopus


Research Description


Organisms are designed to engage three basic functions: resource acquisition, defense against accident (e.g., predation and disease), and reproduction. Their lifestyles represent economic strategies, and range in complexity from very simple solitary foraging to the complicated, multi-layered economies of the social vertebrates. The complexities of valuation, decision-making, and lifestyles are parallel over this range. What are the gradations of complexity in behavioral economy, and how are they traversed in evolution?

We describe neuronal circuitry for cost-benefit decisions in foraging behavior of the predatory sea-slug Pleurobranchaea and reproduce it in simulation. The computations resemble those of the most primitive parts of the mammal’s brain, onto which higher consciousness was grafted in evolution. We study the animal’s simple brain and behavior to understand the origins of the esthetic sense, reward experience, and addiction. How did the complexity for social behavior, abstract thought, and self-awareness evolve from the simpler brain?

We combine behavioral analyses, neurophysiological techniques, and computational modeling in an integrated approach to understanding how complex brains evolved from simple ones. A new research thrust analyzes sensory-motor computations of the peripheral nervous systems in Pleurobranchaea and the octopus to understand the coordination of behavior in animals without articulated skeletons. 

We produce interactive computational simulations of foraging in virtual entities that make realistic economic decisions by weighing stimulus characters against motivation, and reward learning. One may be freely accessed for experimentation from https://github.com/Entience/Cyberslug. A newer version, ASIMOV, illustrating the emergence of addiction processes from the neuronal circuitry of foraging, will be posted in the coming year.


Recent Publications

Brown JW, Caetano-Anollés D, Catanho M, Gribkova E, Ryckman N, Tian K, Voloshin M, Gillette R (2018) Implementing goal-directed foraging decisions of a simpler nervous system in simulation. eNeuro 26 February 2018, 5 (1) ENEURO.0400-17.2018; DOI: https://doi.org/10.1523/ENEURO.0400-17.2018

Green DJ, Huang RC, Sudlow L, Hatcher N, Potgieter K, McCrohan C, Lee C, Romanova EV, Sweedler JV, Gillette MLU, and Gillette, R. (2018). cAMP, Ca2+, pHi, and NO regulate H-like cation channels that underlie feeding and locomotion in the predatory sea slug Pleurobranchaea californica. ACS Chemical Neuroscience, 9(8), 1986-1993. https://doi.org/10.1021/acschemneuro.8b00187

Brown JW, Schaub BM, Klusas BL, Tran AX, Duman AJ, Haney SJ, Boris AC, Flanagan MP, Delgado N, Torres G, Rolón-Martínez S, Vaasjo LO, Miller MW, Gillette R. A role for dopamine in the peripheral sensory processing of a gastropod mollusk. PLOS ONE, in press, 2018.

Gillette R, Brown JW. The Sea Slug, Pleurobranchaea californica: A signpost species in the evolution of complex nervous systems and behavior. Integr Comp Biol. 2015 Dec;55(6):1058-69. https://doi.org/10.1093/icb/icv081.  

Hirayama K, Moroz LL, Hatcher NG, Gillette R (2014) Neuromodulatory Control of a Goal-Directed Decision. PLoS ONE 9(7): e102240. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0102240.

 Gillette R (2014) Pleurobranchaea. Scholarpedia. http://www.scholarpedia.org/article/Pleurobranchaea.  Curator: Prof. Rhanor Gillette. Published November 13, 2014.

Noboa V and Gillette R. Selective prey avoidance learning in the predatory sea-slug Pleurobranchaea californica. J. Exp. Biol. 216:3231-3236. https://doi.org/10.1242/jeb.079384.

Hirayama K, Catanho M, Brown JW and Gillette R (2012) A core circuit module for cost/benefit decision. Front. Neurosci. 6:123. https://doi.org/10.3389/fnins.2012.00123




B.S., University of Miami 
M.S., University of Hawaii 
Ph.D., University of Toronto


Courses Taught

Integrative Neuroscience, MCB 462/NEUR 462

Additional Campus Affiliations


  • Neuroscience Program
  • Beckman Institute; Intelligent Systems
  • Carl R. Woese Institute for Genomic Biology 
  • Center for Biophysics and Quantitative Biology
  • Chair, Research Diving Board