Animals are intrinsically computational. We acquire sensory information about our environments, transform this information into neural representations and memories, and calculate and execute decisions based on recent and past experiences. Our own brains are staggeringly complex, with billions of neurons networked by trillions of synapses. But our basic brain material - molecular and cellular structures and interactions - is shared with our smallest animal relatives. Well-chosen model organisms can be accessible vantage points with perspective over general biological principles. We study brain and behavior in the nematode C. elegans and the fruit fly larva. These animals are small enough that we can use electron microscopy and connectomics to map entire circuits with full synaptic resolution. Their small size and transparency allows us to use optical microscopes to record the activity of all neurons in each circuit for a given behavior with single cell resolution. We focus on quantifiable behaviors such as chemotaxis and thermotaxis. These behaviors can be reduced to a time series of component behavioral motifs such as forward movements, turns, and reversals. From the systematic analysis of motile behavior, we infer the workings of neural algorithms. Applying recent advances in microscopy, optics, machine learning, computer science, and computational neuroscience, we strive to link brain and behavior in these small but fascinating creatures.
Faculty Assistant: Dionne Clarke
17 Oxford Street
Cambridge, MA 02138