Neuronal signaling

 

Introduction

The success of an individual depends upon accurately determining and executing appropriate behaviours based on sensory information gathered from the surroundings.

Hoever, how does the nervous system do this? The main task is in extracting and storing biologically germane information from a complex environment in order to generate successful behaviour?

  • Our research is focused on studying neuronal signalling mechanisms in the visual information processing using insects as research models, with the goal of drawing conclusions of general validity.
  • Depending on their visual ecology different insect species may function well in dim light, be especially good at distinguishing colours or detecting moving objects. However, there are limits beyond which improvement of performance becomes exceedingly difficult, or adaptation for one task means unacceptable penalties for another. As a result of this trade-off process the neural systems become optimally, but not maximally, adapted to the tasks required.
  • Ion channels are key players in producing and processing electrical signals, thereby, providing molecular mechanisms for the adaptations at single cell level. The speed and quality of signal processing can be improved by expressing increasing amounts of suitable ion channels. However, there are significant metabolic costs associated with the increased ion channel density that are attributable to the resulting large ion fluxes that need to be compensated for by energy consuming processes. To optimise for the quality of performance vs. metabolic cost, each neuron is expressing a well-defined ion channel composition out of the “palette” of possible channels defined by the genome.
  • Neurons very rarely work in isolation and their function is often directly modulated by other neurons and by hormonal signals determined by the behavioral state of the animal. Therefore, it is also crucial to also study neural mechanisms at the network and behavioral level, and in biologically relevant contitions. This requires carefully conducted in vivo experiments where neural networks are studied with minimally restrained animals behaving under naturalistic conditions.

Methods

Our research takes advantage of well defined model systems (e.g. Periplaneta americana, D. melanogaster and Bombus sp.) and uses multidisciplinary approaches to tackle challenging research problems. Methods include combination of in vitro and in vivo experimental (e.g. electrophysiology, pharmacology, genetic manipulations and behavioral paradigms) and theoretical techniques (e.g. modelling, linear and nonlinear system analysis and information theory).

Aims of Research

Our long-term goal is to understand the fundamental neural mechanisms that are involved in processing visual information at the level of single cells and local networks. In our view three main factors are required to achieve this:

  1. Multidisciplinary approaches combining various experimental and theoretical methods.
  2. Approaches at several organizational levels: from molecular mechanisms at (sub)cellular level to higher order processing (e.g. memory functions) at the level of neural networks and ultimately linking findings to natural behaviours.
  3. Active method development to tackle experimental and theoretical obstacles that slow down or prevent progress.

Our current projects span from studies on the atomic level interactions between the proteins and their molecular environment to the role of ion channels in optimization of visual signal processing in peripheral areas, and from processing of optic flows by local neuronal networks to the quantitative analysis of the related visual behaviors. The research projects also form part of a PhD- and post-doctoral training programmes.

Last updated: 20.4.2017