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Junior Professorship Programme supports research on neuronal basis of movements

The activity of neurons is the basis for movement patterns in animals and humans alike. Up to now, it is largely unknown how the structure and activity of a neuronal network shapes the composition of complex movements. Abigail Morrison, Junior Professor at the Faculty of Biology and the Bernstein Center at the University of Freiburg, is trying to find an answer to this question. The Baden-Württemberg Ministry of Science now awarded her research with a grant of 150,000 €.

Junior Professorship Programme supports research on neuronal basis of movements

Abigail Morrison (right) and her research group.

 

When a cat sneaks up to a bird and starts its attack at precisely the right moment, her brain has chosen from a wide range of motor patterns those that are most appropriate, and combined them into a complex movement sequence. However, preparations for the successful leap of the feline started much earlier. Changes in the construction of the brain, i.e. strengthening and weakening specific synaptic connections between nerve cells, form the structural basis for learning processes, which also play an important role in movement control. Only such long-lived changes in the structure of the brain allow the quick retrieval of stored processes when they are needed.

So far, the role of the ever-changing pattern of connections between neurons is unknown, as is the nature of the interaction of these structural characteristics with patterns of neuronal activity for the execution of motor tasks. The reason for this is the wide gap between our understanding of microscopic biological neuronal networks and the complex composition of macroscopic movements in a whole organism.

Abigail Morrison, Junior Professor at the Faculty of Biology and the Bernstein Center Freiburg, is trying to bridge this gap within her work. Her field of study is Computational Neuroscience, which looks into the nature of neuronal networks with the help of mathematical analysis and computer-based simulations. Morrison approaches the problem from two opposite sides: firstly, she sets out from the smallest units of the nervous system and examines in computer models how changes in the synaptic connections between individual neurons influence the behaviour of a large network of such modelled nerve cells. At the same time, Abigail Morrison and her research group devise large-scale network models capable of generating high-level functionality such as controlled complex movements, taking into account the present knowledge from biological research about the neuronal basis of learning. An important point in the work with theoretical models is the consistent consideration and comparison of results with experimental data from real, biological brains. This ensures a strong biological foundation for the resulting models.

Abigail Morrison has been a Junior Professor at the University of Freiburg since November 1, 2009. Her work has been chosen to receive financial support for three years by the Baden-Württemberg Ministry of Science, Research and Culture, amounting to 150,000 €. She is one of three Junior Professors at the University of Freiburg to be awarded this grant. The funding will allow Abigail Morrison the expansion of her research group, as well as the acquisition of necessary scientific equipment.

 

Official press release of the University of Freiburg (in German)

 

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