Research Interests

I am interested in the sensory processing and plasticity in motor networks and the influence of this plasticity on behavior. For this, I use the arthropod motor circuit as a model system for the integration of sensory information and pattern selecting processes inside the nervous system. The main focus of my work is to determine how networks with small numbers of neurons cope with complex and multimodal sensory input and how higher order circuits select the required patterns from multifunctional motor circuits to perform the adequate behavior.

The ability to handle an overwhelming amount of sensory input and the ability to adequately respond to the situation at hand is the most fascinating property of the nervous system. While this phenomenon plays a key role in everyday life, because it serves to adapt the animal to the changing requirements of the body and the environment, it is also one of the least understood. Intriguingly, even small brains with a limited number of neurons are capable of performing this task. For making the decision what motor program to use, nervous systems, and particularly small ones, require mechanisms to reduce the complexity of the sensory input space and to select the task-relevant sensory information.

In my research, I have so far focused on rhythmic motor patterns, generated by neuronal circuits called central pattern generators in the stomatogastric nervous system of crustaceans. Central pattern generators govern large parts of our behavior such as walking, breathing or chewing. They are multifunctional, i.e. they generate a variety of different patterns to respond adequately to the situation at hand. In an interdisciplinary approach, I aim at relating the neural actions of the brain to the behavior of the animal. My approach combines behavioral observations, neurophysiology on the cellular and circuit levels, optical imaging with fluorescent dyes, and computer-based real-time modeling in closed-loop systems to elucidate general principles of motor pattern selection from multifunctional, adaptive networks. Recently, I have started to use multi-unit optical recording techniques for these purposes and I aim at implementing these tools in my research.

Since many of the same organizing principles pertain to network activity in all animals, my work aims to better elucidate how the nervous system generates a functionally adequate behavior also in "higher" animals, including humans. The principles derived from these experiments and models will then guide us to a more thorough understanding of how animals interact and communicate adequately with their environment. This will then also lead to the implementation of more sophisticated sensory algorithms in mechanical agents, such as robots and artificial limbs.