"For many problems there is an animal on which it can be most conveniently studied."
August Krogh, 1929
The primary goal of my lab is to understand how nervous systems produce behavior. At their most basic, nervous systems accomplish three main tasks:
1. They receive inputs from the world via sensory neurons located in the eyes, ears, nose, mouth, and skin.
2. They process this information using interneurons located in the brain and spinal cord.
3. Produce behaviors via motor neurons located in the spinal cord that produce coordinated patterns of muscle activity.
A major goal of neuroscience is to understand how the nervous system produces rhythmic behaviors such as walking. In most species, these behaviors are produced by networks of neurons found (in vertebrates) in the spinal cord called central pattern generators (CPGs for short). The job of a CPG is to produce the appropriate timing and activation of limbs responsible for producing a behavior such as walking. The output of these networks is primarily a function of their intrinsic properties (i.e., the complements of ion channels in their membranes) and their connectivity patterns (i.e., the way a neuron interacts with its partners in the network). At present, characterizing CPG’s in vertebrates is challenging, owing to the complexity of the networks in the spinal cord.
We study the central pattern generator that underlies heartbeat in the medicinal leech (Hirudo sp.). The animal has two tubular hearts which produce rhythmic constriction patterns. The neural network that produces this constriction pattern has been extensively characterized. In short, we know who the members of the network are, who they communicate with and when they perform that communication. This level of detail allows us to address questions of broad interest in neuroscience. Our goal is to produce general principles of motor pattern generation that will translate to more complex preparations. Work in the lab combines physiology, mathematical modeling and hybrid systems approaches to address how nervous systems produce rhythmic behaviors.
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