How Does the Neocortex Work?
Our aim is to understand the rules by which networks of nerves cells in the neocortex orchestrate their activity to process information; to decipher the neural code.
The outermost part of our brain – the neocortex – houses our mental functions like perception, cognition and action. Over the last few decades important steps have been made in understanding the small-scale organization of the neocortex. For example, there is a plethora of knowledge about the properties of single neurons and the molecular mechanisms of sub-cellular processes such as synaptic plasticity. Also, we know a lot about the large-scale organization of the neocortex such as the fact that it is split into numerous distinct areas that serve different functions.
Yet, despite this progress, we still do not know how the neocortex processes information. The essence of the problem lies in understanding how the billions of neurons communicating through trillions of connections coordinate their activities to give rise to our mental faculties. Obviously, we are faced with a problem of immense complexity. However, if there are underlying principles and rules that govern this complexity, discovering them provides a powerful strategy to make progress towards understanding how the neocortex works.
The goal of our research team is to unravel the elementary principles that underlie cortical computations in our quest to discover the canonical algorithm(s) implemented by cortical microcircuits. We study cortical function in vivo in behaving animals at the circuit level by following a multidisciplinary approach: we combine electrophysiological and two-photon imaging methods for multi-neuronal recording with molecular techniques for circuit tracing and manipulation. We use computational and theoretical methods for data analysis and for modeling cortical circuit function. Currently, our work focuses on the visual system of mice and non-human primates. Our goal is to follow a cross-species and cross-cortical area comparison in order to identify similarities and differences between the algorithms of the necortex. We hope that this approach will provide a unique window to study the evolution of the neocortex. Numerous neuropsychiatric illnesses such as autism spectrum disorders, stroke, Alzheimer’s disease and schizophrenia are associated with cortical malfunction, underscoring the importance of understanding how the neocortex works.
Novel Methods for Circuit Analysis
Our research team has also a strong focus in developing new methods to study the functional organization of cortical circuits in vivo. For example in collaboration with Dr. Peter Saggau we have developed a fast in vivo 3D two-photon microscope based on 3D random-access multi-photon excitation. This microscope employs a series of acousto-optical deflectors that enable us to generate arbitrary 3D scanning paths at frame rates two orders of magnitude faster than current state-of-the-art two-photon imaging systems. We are also working on developing novel chronic high-density multi-electrode recording methods.