NIH-funded research to examine how the brain processes visual stimuli

Jennifer Hoy, assistant professor in the Department of Biology, recently received a grant from the National Institutes of Health (NIH) to continue research on the perception of visual stimuli. The announcement of the award came in late August and Hoy’s project will be a collaboration with two other faculty members at the University as well as Karl Farrow, Principal Investigator at NeuroElectronics Research Flanders (NERF) in Belgium.

The NIH RO1 grant will provide Hoy’s lab and his collaborators with nearly $ 2 million over five years and will also fund undergraduate and graduate student research. This grant is a prestigious award that gets more and more competitive each year, which makes this achievement even more remarkable.

“I wanted to understand how these subconscious interactions that underlie approach behaviors develop,” Hoy said.

The aim of the research is to identify how neurons in the brain alert us to the appearance of important visual stimuli. Essentially, researchers want to know how the brain determines, “Where is this thing in space and how do I feel about it?” Hoy’s lab is studying how the mouse brain physically connects certain visual stimuli to a response. Most of the time, this is done quickly and without much conscious thought. If a mouse detects an appetizing insect, what causes the mouse to chase it away?

“I wanted to understand how these subconscious interactions that underlie approach behaviors develop,” Hoy said. If Hoy’s lab can uncover the visual pathways necessary for critical visual orientation behavior, which are simpler and easier to study in mice, more targeted therapies can be developed for human disorders such as autism where visuospatial orientation behaviors are disturbed.

“Right off the bat, you’re programmed to already have an innate visual understanding of what general things are good and what general things are bad,” Hoy said. The researchers will be mapping the response of upper colliculus neurons to other parts of the brain to determine how a visual stimulus is perceived by mice as good and worth addressing, or bad, requiring leakage.

The superior colliculus is a part of the brain connected to the retina and brainstem that helps an organism orient itself in its environment by generating a two-dimensional map of its visual world. It also helps an organism identify which stimuli are interesting and what deserves attention. For a mouse, this could be an insect that would make a good snack that the mouse identifies as something it wants to approach.

One of the cutting-edge methods used by researchers is to record the activity of the neuronal population by functional ultrasound imaging. This technique was developed in part by Farrow.

Farrow’s lab is one of the few labs in the world to regularly use this approach, which enables brain-wide mapping of the connectivity of neural circuits in the superior colliculus. The data obtained resemble activity maps generated by functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) of the human brain, but at a much finer resolution in the brain of mice.

“In addition to activity maps at the neural circuit level, very precise neural activity over time can be measured from a specific region of the brain using next-generation NeuroPixel probes while mice watch and actively behave in response to controlled visual stimuli, ”Hoy said. “The resulting data will give patterns of neuronal activity of specific neuron types as they respond to processing and behavior of visual stimuli.”

Although there are several methods that allow researchers to associate brain activity with different aspects of behavior, it is particularly difficult to determine whether this activity is due to the stimulus detected, to the action taken by the body in response to the stimulus or the decision taken. done on the stimulus. To solve this problem, Dr Hoy has teamed up with two additional collaborators on this project, Assistant Professors Mark Lescroart and Edward Ester of the Department of Psychology, who will apply their methods of decoding complex neural activity patterns in the human brain. to the activity of the neuronal population in mice. brains. Another important goal of this collaboration is to ensure that researchers examine how the visual processing that occurs in the brains of mice and humans may differ between very distant species.

The next step in this research is to determine where the meaning and attitude towards a visual stimulus comes from and how it develops and is shaped by experience. The experiences with a given stimulus and the consequences of that interaction reinforce or modify the way in which a general stimulus is perceived, positively or negatively.

“By understanding how experiences physically alter our innate wiring to process positive and negative stimuli, we will be better able to deal with disorders where the link between sensation and emotional response is disrupted, such as post-traumatic stress disorder. , generalized anxiety and depression, ”Hoy said. .

The current grant will largely support the costs of staff and trainees as well as the costs associated with caring for and studying the natural behavior of mice. The biggest expense, Hoy says, is training and paying people to do the work and learn the skills. Attracting an experienced researcher was an important goal for Hoy, and being able to pay well for a researcher who could lead a collaborative group, train students, and perform the statistical analyzes necessary for this work was crucial.

Dr. Hoy got off to a good start mentoring students as co-PIs in a National Science Foundation (NSF) Undergraduate Research Experience Site Award that she used to engage undergraduates in extramural funded research, ”said Jack Hayes, chair of the biology department. Hoy’s NIH RO1 Award will build on this success to support research opportunities for graduate and undergraduate students.

Hoy also collaborated with professors from the Department of Mechanical Engineering. Associate Professor Yantao Shen took Hoy to an NSF-funded project, where Hoy’s expertise in animal behavior and feeling was relevant to the soft robotics training program as animals make efficient and rapid sensory decisions. .

Hoy attributes much of his lab’s success to support for the Center of Excellence in Biomedical Research (COBRE) funded by the National Institute of General Medical Sciences. This NIH COBRE Award, which is led by Professor Michael Webster of the Foundation’s Department of Psychology, provides essential financial resources as well as intellectual support and mentorship, advice on grant writing and access to teaching facilities. based.

“COBRE was instrumental in obtaining preliminary data in our laboratory to measure the responses of animals to these visual stimuli,” Hoy said. “Michael Webster really works with each winner. He has so much experience and was successful in the grant writing process himself, ”she added.

“Our integrative neuroscience program has grown in leaps and bounds and this is due to the quality of our students and the passion of the directors of the Institute,” said Hoy. “One thing I really love about University is that we can attract some really good undergraduates into the lab and trained, and they deliver, and in return, they participate in research.” Hoy has been at the University since 2017.

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