Computational Neuroethology Unit (Sam Reiter)

Our unit’s long-term goal is to uncover principles of cognition through the study of animal behavior, the collective activity of neurons, and the circuits they form. As brains evolved to perform adaptive behaviors, we think that studying the brain within a naturalistic context may provide the most direct approach to achieving this goal. We take an interdisciplinary approach, combining behavioral, physiological and anatomical experiments with data analysis and computational modeling.

Our current focus is on coleoid cephalopods (cuttlefish, squid and octopus). These animals offer several advantages as experimental systems: First, they are the only group of invertebrates to have evolved large brains (~500x the size of eusocial insects) and highly sophisticated behaviors independently of vertebrates. This means that a comparison between groups promises to reveal shared principles of complex neural systems. Second, they possess a unique adaptation in the form of a large array of specialized pigmented skin cells, called chromatophores, directly controlled by the brain. Using these cells, cephalopods can generate a very wide variety of skin patterns (much like the pixels of a high-resolution TV screen, except that each pixel is controlled mechanically). Cephalopods use their skin patterning to perform behaviors as diverse as camouflage and communication. We now possess techniques to describe these patterns at cellular resolution, producing extremely rich behavioral datasets. Third, chromatophores, the ‘pixels’ of the skin patterning array, are controlled by muscles, which are themselves controlled by motor neurons projecting from the brain. Therefore, by behaviorally monitoring the chromatophore array one is in fact indirectly imaging an extremely large set of motor neurons in freely behaving animals. Thus, in cephalopods the link between brain and behavior is particularly clear.

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