Current Research

Misha Ahrens uses zebrafish to study how the brain learns and controls behavior.

Our research goal is to understand, on the whole-brain but single-cell level, how entire neural circuits generate adaptable behaviors and how plasticity reorganizes the functional properties of these circuits to implement learned changes in behavior. We are interested in, among other behaviors, adaptive motor control, which is as important to fish as it is to humans.

Figure 1: Larval zebrafish expressing a genetically encoded calcium sensor in all neurons...

We use advances in microscopy, genetics, and virtual reality for zebrafish to study the neural basis of such adaptive behaviors. Light-sheet microscopy allows for the functional imaging of nearly all neurons in the brains of zebrafish. Pairing this technique with a fictive virtual reality setup, we can start investigating how whole-brain neuronal activity underlies flexible behavior.

Are neural circuits hard-wired to generate a fixed pattern of behavior in response to a stimulus? In most cases, the answer is no—animals continuously adapt their behavior to changing environments. This includes changes in the reward structure as well as changes in the physics of the body and the environment, such as when humans step onto a slippery floor or a fish swims into more viscous water, or after injury. This adaptability is the key to the successful function of the central nervous system in driving behavior. How is this continuous learning and adaptation implemented on the circuit level? How does the function of neural networks change when an animal is confronted with a change in the environment? We tackle these questions using a combination of imaging and perturbing neuronal activity during behavior, and computational methods for analyzing the resulting large data sets.

As of May 27, 2014

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