Integrative approaches to understanding whole-brain computation

  • Awardees
  • Misha B. Ahrens, Ph.D. Janelia Research Campus
  • John P. Cunningham, Ph.D. Columbia University
  • Florian Engert, Ph.D. Harvard University
  • Liam Paninski, Ph.D. Columbia University
  • Byron Yu, Ph.D. Carnegie Mellon University
Year Awarded


The human brain is composed of billions of neurons. Currently, neuroscientists understand just a fraction of the electrical and chemical code that neurons use to communicate with one another. One obstacle has been the lack of technologies to simultaneously track the activity of each individual neuron at ‘the speed of thought.’ New techniques, however, are on the verge of accomplishing this in smaller systems. Our group will combine the power of sophisticated computer algorithms with cutting-edge microscopes to monitor the activity of many neurons at once in real time. Our previous work used powerful microscopes to observe all the neurons in the brain of a zebrafish in its larval stage. However, these observations were slower than the speed of electrical activity in the fish’s brain. Collaborating with other labs, we will develop computational methods to determine the activity of single neurons even when the microscope on its own isn’t powerful enough to view objects as small as single cells. This advance will enhance imaging speed up to tenfold or more, enabling us to conduct previously impossible experiments. Working in zebrafish, for example, we will identify how small areas of the brain involved in initiating movements influence how the entire brain processes feedback from those movements. Our work will provide a suite of new tools for other neuroscientists to use, as well as general insight into how the brain processes information and carries out behavior.

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