Research

Neural basis of sensory-guided behaviour

We know a lot about how neurons in sensory systems respond under anaesthesia, and this continues to be a useful approach when highly controlled stimulation is paramount (see Bale et al (2013)). However, to understand how decision-making works, it is necessary to study the awake brain. Due to technical progress with new techniques that are established in the lab, exciting new experiments are now possible. We have recently secured funding from both BBSRC and MRC to pursue this work.

Whisker movement as a mouse whiskers a metal pole: whisker tracked using our 'WhiskerMan' software..

Whisker movement as a mouse whiskers a metal pole: whisker tracked using our 'WhiskerMan' software.

Electrophysiological recording from neurons and populations of neurons

Each human brain contains more neurons than there are humans on the planet. Since collective action is crucial to brain function, it is very useful to record simultaneously the activity of multiple neurons. To target the deep neural structures that we are interested in, the best way to do this is to use multi-microelectrode arrays. For an early example of our work with large-scale multimicroelectrode recording from barrel cortex, please see Petersen & Diamond (2000).

Multi-microelectrode array recording from thalamus (Bale et al, in prep).

Multi-microelectrode array recording from thalamus (Bale et al, in prep).

Computational methods for cracking neural codes

The relationship between sensory signals and neuronal responses is too complex to understood with classical statistics alone. However, powerful computational methods have been developed both to quantify how much information neurons encode about sensory signals ('Information Theory') and to figure out what features of sensory signals it is that neurons respond to. We have used these methods to show that spike timing is an important element of the neural code (see Petersen et al (2009)) and to pin down the sensory features that neurons in the whisker system respond to (see Petersen et al (2008) and Bale et al (2013).)

Generalised Linear Model: Bale et al (2013).

Generalised Linear Model: Bale et al (2013).

The whisker system

The rodent whisker system has a beautiful structure, whereby its constituent building blocks - ‘barrels’, ‘barreloids’ and ‘barrelettes’ - can be visualised through appropriate staining. This makes the whisker system ideal for addressing major questions in neuroscience, including the development, plasticity and function of sensory systems.

Our research is funded by:

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Rat barrel cortex: Petersen & Diamond (2000).

Rat barrel cortex: Petersen & Diamond (2000).