Synapses – Circuits – Plasticity
One of the most fundamental properties of the brain is its ability to adapt rapidly to environmental changes. This is mainly achieved by changes in the connectivity between individual nerve cells. Synapses, the connection elements between neurons, can be modulated in their strength by a variety of different mechanisms, a process called "synaptic plasticity".
We investigate the fundamental principles of synaptic plasticity at a number of different levels, ranging from molecular approaches to studies of the intact nervous system. Recent results from our lab have shown that synaptic plasticity is accompanied by structural changes of dendritic spines, they have demonstrated that these structural changes are the reason why re-learning of information acquired early in life is comparatively easy, and they have revealed in how far the detailed structure of functional maps in the visual cortex is due to experience in the outside world.
During development, specific connections among neurons within the visual cortex are established. However, even in the adult brain, this network is able to adapt to new demands. We investigate the cellular mechanisms enabling this plasticity in the developing and adult brain.
It is known, that learning leads to the formation of new synaptic connections between individual nerve cells. Yet it is unclear whether these structural changes are specific enough to take part in forming a neuronal ‘memory trace’. We study both in vivo
and in vitro
how learning-induced changes in the response properties of individual neurons and synapses relate to changes in their structure.
With increasing knowledge about information processing in the intact brain it becomes evident how strongly social factors influence computations and storage of information. To shine light on the underlying processes we are studying the influence of social interactions between mice and their pups on learning behavior. We are using pup-retrieval behavior to shine light on the impact of pup calls onto the structure and function of auditory cortex neurons in mothers and foster mothers.
Behavioral paradigms of memory
We are interested in how the brain stores memories of associated items and associated events, and aim to address this question at the cellular and circuit level. In recent years, we have developed behavioral paradigms for mice to study rule, category and paired-association learning.
Synaptic plasticity in virtual reality environments
Among the many vital functions of our visual system, the computation of depth and distance to objects is a key component of what our eyes see, and what our brain perceives from the environment. In particular, distance perception is essential for several daily tasks, like gauging whether an object is close enough to grab, or how far the next stoplight is. For animals, depth perception is even more relevant, since it allows them to gauge how far a predator or prey is. How the computation of these concepts works is one of the questions we try to answer.