Amy Ni, Ph.D.

University of Pittsburgh

Amy Ni is a postdoctoral fellow in Marlene Cohen’s lab at the University of Pittsburgh. Ni began studying the relationship between neuronal activity and behavior as an undergraduate student in Yale Cohen’s lab at Dartmouth College, where she received a B.A. in psychological and brain studies in 2004. She received a Ph.D. in neurobiology in 2011 under the supervision of John Maunsell at Harvard University. From 2012 to 2014, she was a postdoctoral fellow in Gregory Horwitz’s lab at the University of Washington. Using a combination of psychophysical, electrophysiological and computational techniques, Ni studies how processes that improve visual perception affect the activity of populations of neurons in the visual cortex. By examining the aspects of population activity that change with improved perception, she hopes to home in on the parts of the neuronal code that most influence behavior.


“Neuronal Population Changes Underlying Perceptual Learning and Attention”

If you’ve ever tried your hand at a “Where’s Waldo?” picture, you know how hard it can be to find the tiny, bespectacled man in a sea of people. If we monitored the activity of a population of neurons in your brain as you viewed that crowded scene, we would find that many aspects of the population’s activity change over time. My goal is to figure out which aspects of neuronal activity are most important for performing a task, such as finding Waldo in a crowd. To study this question, I look at how different conditions, such as whether you’re paying attention or whether you’ve had a lot of practice at a task, affect neuronal population activity. Both attention and practice boost performance, and previous research suggests they alter neuronal activity in similar ways. If these two different processes improve performance by modulating the same aspects of neuronal population activity, then finding and understanding those features of population activity should illuminate how our brains perform these tasks. I plan to address this issue directly by measuring neuronal activity as animals perform a “Where’s Waldo” type of task. I aim to then pinpoint which aspects of population activity change when visual perception improves and decipher how these changes enhance our ability to find Waldo.

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