In 2017, a large amount of funds earmarked for our intramural funding programme (research pool funds) was dedicated to a new concept according to which they will be invested in small consortia fostering international cooperation in PhD student training. These consortia have applied for Research Training Projects (RTPs), which will be running for a three-year period and enable small groups of students to complete a PhD project in an international and interdisciplinary environment.
RTP consortia will aim to secure funding from outside sources to provide sustainability over and above the three years posited for the initial application. Besides this, the CIN and University board of reviewers for the RTP applications has stated a preference for international collaborative efforts, with consortia receiving high marks if they are based on stable international cooperation.
Four RTP consortia were recommended for funding under this model and have commenced their work in July 2017:
In the steady stream of data impinging on an organism’s sensory systems, changes are of particular relevance. Changes result from events occurring in the environment or actions taken by the agent itself, and will thus contain information about such events or actions. The agent will have to decide whether, and how, it is going to react to such changes in a way suitable for its survival. Changes of input patterns over a large sensory surface are often considered as “sensory flows”. For example, optic flow is a fundamental pattern that arises when moving in visual environments. Optic flow is exploited by virtually all eyed animals to guide various behaviors, such as selfstabilisation (optomotor response) and hunting (detection of independent motion). Flow information is not restricted to the visual system but also available to other sensory modalities such as audition or electrosensation.
Sensory flows differ in many respects including the physical nature of the underlying signal (light, sound, electric field), the mapping from the scene to the sensory surface (linear perspective, sound reflection, electric field deformation), the sensory organs involved, the signal source (passive illumination, active calls, electric organ discharges), and the overall temporal structure (continuous or pulsed). In all cases, however, neural processing will be based on spatio-temporal filters extracting elementary flow pattern from sensory surfaces or from some ego-centric representation of the animal’s surround. These filters will depend on the physical nature of each modality, statistical regularities in the flow pattern, and the information needed to control the organism’s behavior. How the exact properties of such filters are adapted to species-specific natural flows and behavioral demands and whether neural processing of sensory flows follows common principles across the different sensory modalities is, however, largely unknown.
In the proposed Mini Research Training Project (Mini-RTP), we will study and compare the neural mechanisms underlying sensory flow processing and the flow-based control of behaviour in three different modalities, vision, audition, and electro-sensation. Using statistical learning theory, we will identify filters for the detection of statistic regularities in each of the three modalities and compare the results with each other as well as with mechanisms derived from the signal-specific laws of flow generation (computational theory). Animal studies will focus on swimming and flying animals in which sensory flows are extremely important for the estimation of ego-motion, while haptic or proprioceptive cues may provide ambiguous information. Model systems include the optokinetic response in zebrafish and cichlids, electro-sensory scene analysis in weakly electric fish, and prey detection and localisation in echo-locating bats. We will use cutting-edge experimental methodology suited for each species and sensory modality, including neurophysiological techniques (single- and multi-unit electrophysiology, calcium imaging), behavioral recordings (incl. those of acoustic and electric signal emissions), and sensory stimulation techniques (visual displays, electric-field robots, biomimetic sonar systems, natural stimuli in the field). Our focus on the vertebrate subphylum will allow us to compare the neural structures involved and to provide links to human sensory flow processing.
In the proposed Mini-RTP we will establish the necessary groundwork together with our international partners at the University of Maryland (UMD) and Johns Hopkins University (JHU). We plan to broaden the scope of the Mini-RTP to evolutionary adaptations of neural systems and behavior by applying for an international RTG. Specific future topics include (i) multimodal integration of sensory flows, and (ii) neuronal mechanisms of speciation in closely related species, in particular color perception in cichlid fish species and processing of communication signals in weakly-electric fish species. For these questions and potential additional matching questions, we will extend the local and international cooperation by the application for a fully funded international research training group with UMD and JHU in 2019 (DFG and the NSF PIRE program). Overall, our work will shed light on the senso-motoric adaptivity of the vertebrate brain and the niches it has enabled its owners to occupy during evolution.
4 PhD projects
Episodic memory information is encoded during wakefulness by a system comprising, as central structures, the hippocampal formation and the neocortex. During succeeding periods of sleep this system continues to process the newly encoded episodic representations, mainly during slow wave sleep (SWS), such that selected portions of this information become stored for the long-term. This project aims to clarify how the re-processing of episodic representations during sleep changes these representations at the neocortical as well as hippocampal level.
In four subprojects we will examine with respect to hippocampal representations (i) whether neural reactivations of newly encoded representations during SWS enhance processes of pattern separation and completion, (ii) the contribution of adult neurogenesis to memory consolidation during sleep; with respect to neocortical representations (iii) whether and how the slow oscillation that hallmarks SWS enhances structural synaptic plasticity mediating the stabilization of these representations, and (iv) how neocortical slow oscillations, thalamic spindles, and hippocampal ripples regulate the dialogue between neocortex and hippocampus during memory processing.
In accordance with the Federal Government’s Strategy for the Internationalization of Education, Science and Research 2017 and the Roadmap for Cooperative Health Research between the EU and Latin America, the project aims to promote a PhD exchange with the two major Chilean universities, the Universidad de Chile and the Pontificia Universidad Catolica de Chile.
3 PhD projects
The proposed Research Training Group „Pregnancy and the brain“ brings together researchers from neuropsychology, informatics and medical sciences in order to establish substantial scientific exchange and to promote young doctoral researchers within the framework of a clearly defined and well-structured research and training program. This program will provide an integrated and interdisciplinary investigation of the effect of pregnancy on socio-cognitive processes, brain structure and function, post-partum mood and mental health as well as its impact on fetal and child development.
The first aim is to better characterize how pregnancy, a period of massive hormonal adaptation, changes women’s brains, cognition and associated behavior. The second aim then focuses on mechanisms of transgenerational transmission explaining how differential pregnancy course affects fetal and early childhood development on the level of brain function, mother-child interaction and mental well-being of both. This ambitious aim can be approached by using different methodologies on different levels, i.e. the neural, behavioral, representational, procedural, and the phenomenal level.
To integrate these various levels and areas into a comprehensive theoretical framework is a major challenge and requires cooperation between psychology, neurosciences, gynecology and obstetrics, physics and informatics. We assume that an appropriate understanding of the impact of pregnancy on brain structure, function and associated behavioral aspects is of great importance for future research in neurobiology, psychiatry, cognitive psychology, philosophy as well as for medical and ethical practice.
4 PhD projects
The purpose of this proposal is to jumpstart a graduate training cluster with a focus on systems level investigations of the principles guiding and governing motor control and coordination. We view this effort as complementing existing strengths in the CIN community on sensory and cognitive aspects of brain function. For example, with the existence of recently funded CRC’s on vision and learning/memory coordinated by current CIN members, there appears to be a pressing need to grow aspects of CIN research that are also related to motor outputs. The proposed mini research training project will provide the necessary foundations towards alleviating this need, and it will further solidify the CIN’s position as a leading neuroscience institute focusing on all aspects of brain function on the global scale.
Consistent with the stated criteria for the funding of CIN mini research training projects, our proposal aims to follow this application up with a formal application to the DFG of an International Research Training Grant (IRTG). In this grant, we will partner with international colleagues in Japan, in order to foster bilateral graduate student exchanges between Germany and Japan. Thus, our current proposal also fulfills the second important stated criterion for funding by the CIN, namely the existence of stable current and future international collaborations. In fact, we believe that our project is ideally suited for achieving such international collaborations.
First, our speaker, Ziad Hafed, already has a stable and ongoing collaboration with a Japanese colleague, Masatoshi Yoshida (from the National Institute for Physiological Sciences, NIPS), who will be one of the members of the IRTG. This collaboration was already funded once by the DFG, and it has resulted in several important publications.
Second, one of Hafed’s graduate students is now planning to start a post-doc with another Japanese colleague, Tadashi Isa (from the NIPS and Kyoto University), with whom we at the CIN have closely interacted over the past few years. This demonstrates that our close interactions with Japan so far can and do lead to exchanges of talent between the two countries.
Third, our Japanese collaborators will help expand on animal models that the CIN can benefit from, namely the use of marmoset monkeys. Fourth, the members of our current consortium listed above have all participated in the so-called annual CIN-NIPS symposia between our institute and the Japanese NIPS, and through mutual visits. This means that our consortium has a level of familiarity with our Japanese counterparts, including their labs, interests, and competences, that will result in an efficient establishment of training programs and student exchanges.
4 PhD projects