Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada
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Current Winner - 2017

Brockhouse Canada Prize for Interdisciplinary Research in Science and Engineering

Brockhouse Canada Prize for Interdisciplinary Research in Science and Engineering

Department of Physics, Department of Cellular and Molecular Medicine

University of Ottawa

Our brains, like our computers, relay information across complex networks of circuits and systems in micro-fractions of a second. And, like computers, this process is programmed into us with a code, one that has stumped neuroscientists for years.

André Longtin and Leonard Maler have combined their expertise in physics, mathematics and neurobiology to reveal key features of the neural code that underlies the operation of the brain. The University of Ottawa researchers use electric fish to trace the journey of signals as they move through the entire sensory process, observing the hidden traits of brain activity in moments of focus. For instance, Longtin and Maler were the first to show how the brain uses movement to gather information and fix attention. When someone throws you a ball, your eyes move between any number of points to locate and track until it becomes easy to isolate the ball and prepare to catch it. At the moment you lock onto the ball, your brain switches its neural-firing pattern—patterns can be isolated or come in bursts of activity—a clear signal that your attention has become focused. They also showed that our brains ramp up their attention before movements, a sort of instinct to get ready to pay attention. This ramping up takes place whether we want it or not, in some cases occurring a full four seconds before we move, which raises the question: are we telling our brains we want to move, or is the decision being made for us?

Longtin and Maler are now expanding their efforts by unlocking another important piece of the neural code: how our senses tap into our memories to gain vital information to aid our attention and decision-making.

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