Mapping the mind’s neural code

Posted on Tuesday, February 7, 2017


Our brains, like our computers, relay information across complex networks of circuits and systems in micro-fractions of a second. And, like computers, this process is programmed into us with a code, one that has stumped neuroscientists for years.

But at uOttawa’s Brain and Mind Research Institute, professors André Longtin and Leonard Maler, of the uOttawa Department of Physics and Department of Cellular and Molecular Medicine, respectively, have combined their expertise to uncover key features of the neural code that underlie the operation of the brain. The University of Ottawa researchers used electric fish, whose brains are similar to ours (albeit at a fundamental level), to trace how signals move during the entire sensory process, thereby observing the hidden traits of brain activity in moments of focus.

And their years of research have won them the Brockhouse Canada Prize for Interdisciplinary Research in Science and Engineering, awarded by the National Science and Engineering Research Council (NSERC). The physicist and neurobiologist have been striving to figure out the fundamental laws that govern how neurons “compute" together, based on their individual properties. The professors’ common motivation and complementary expertise prompted them to ask innovative questions, which ultimately revealed certain laws that could be expressed mathematically, as in physics.

“Electric fish are a superb model system for studying core problems of neural coding because we can non-invasively monitor the electric discharge they use to ‘see’ the world,” said Longtin. “Just imagine if, every time you looked at something, a beam of light was visible to an experimenter extending from your eye to whatever you were looking at. It would then be very much easier to figure out what you were paying attention to and what you were learning about the world.”

Using this approach, Longtin and Maler were the first to show how the brain uses movement to gather information and focus attention. When someone throws you a ball, your eyes move between any number of points to locate and track the ball until it becomes easy to isolate it and prepare to catch it. At the moment your attention locks onto the ball, your brain activates a specific neural firing pattern that clearly signals that your attention has become focused.

“Andre and I have worked very hard for decades to unravel some of the mysteries of brain function and we did this out of curiosity. Brain function is just intriguing because it gets to very personal questions: how do we decide, remember etc.,” said Maler. “It is wonderful and encouraging for me to witness, via this award, how NSERC recognizes the importance of funding basic science research with the understanding that the ‘basic’ of today will become the ‘applied’ of tomorrow.”

Beyond identifying the brain’s neural firing patterns, the researchers also showed that our brains ramp up their attention before we move, a sort of instinct to get ready to pay attention. This ramping up takes place whether we want to move or not, in some cases occurring a full four seconds before we move, which raises the question: are we telling our brains we want to move, or is the decision being made for us?

"On behalf of the University of Ottawa, I would like to congratulate both of our outstanding researchers for their curiosity that has earned them the prestigious Brockhouse award," said Mona Nemer, University of Ottawa Vice-President, Research. "Their exemplary interdisciplinary research inspires us all to look beyond our own disciplines to find the answers to the unknown."

Longtin and Maler are now expanding their efforts to unlock another important piece of the neural code: how our senses tap into our memories to gain vital information in order to assist our attention and decision-making.


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