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General Principles for Sensory Coding  

Tatyana O. Sharpee

Sensory systems exist to provide an organism with information about the state of the environment that can be used to guide future actions and decisions. Remarkably, two conceptually simple yet general theorems from information theory can be used to evaluate the performance of any sensory system. One theorem states that there is a minimal amount of energy that an organism has to spend in order to capture a given amount of information about the environment. The second theorem states that the maximum rate with which the organism can acquire resources from the environment, relative to its competitors, is limited by the information this organism collects about the environment, also relative to its competitors. These two theorems provide a scaffold for formulating and testing general principles of sensory coding but leave unanswered many important practical questions of implementation in neural circuits. These implementation questions have guided thinking in entire subfields of sensory neuroscience, and include: What features in the sensory environment should be measured? Given that we make decisions on a variety of time scales, how should one solve trade-offs between making simpler measurements to guide minimal decisions vs. more elaborate sensory systems that have to overcome multiple delays between sensation and action. Once we agree on the types of features that are important to represent, how should they be represented? How should resources be allocated between different stages of processing, and where is the impact of noise most damaging? Finally, one should consider trade-offs between implementing a fixed strategy vs. an adaptive scheme that readjusts resources based on current needs. Where adaptation is considered, under what conditions does it become optimal to switch strategies? Research over the past 60 years has provided answers to almost all of these questions but primarily in early sensory systems. Joining these answers into a comprehensive framework is a challenge that will help us understand who we are and how we can make better use of limited natural resources.


Multisensory Integration and the Perception of Self-Motion  

Kathleen E. Cullen

As we go about our everyday activities, our brain computes accurate estimates of both our motion relative to the world, and of our orientation relative to gravity. Essential to this computation is the information provided by the vestibular system; it detects the rotational velocity and linear acceleration of our heads relative to space, making a fundamental contribution to our perception of self-motion and spatial orientation. Additionally, in everyday life, our perception of self-motion depends on the integration of both vestibular and nonvestibular cues, including visual and proprioceptive information. Furthermore, the integration of motor-related information is also required for perceptual stability, so that the brain can distinguish whether the experienced sensory inflow was a result of active self-motion through the world or if instead self-motion that was externally generated. To date, understanding how the brain encodes and integrates sensory cues with motor signals for the perception of self-motion during natural behaviors remains a major goal in neuroscience. Recent experiments have (i) provided new insights into the neural code used to represent sensory information in vestibular pathways, (ii) established that vestibular pathways are inherently multimodal at the earliest stages of processing, and (iii) revealed that self-motion information processing is adjusted to meet the needs of specific tasks. Our current level of understanding of how the brain integrates sensory information and motor-related signals to encode self-motion and ensure perceptual stability during everyday activities is reviewed.


Visual Shape and Object Perception  

Anitha Pasupathy, Yasmine El-Shamayleh, and Dina V. Popovkina

Humans and other primates rely on vision. Our visual system endows us with the ability to perceive, recognize, and manipulate objects, to avoid obstacles and dangers, to choose foods appropriate for consumption, to read text, and to interpret facial expressions in social interactions. To support these visual functions, the primate brain captures a high-resolution image of the world in the retina and, through a series of intricate operations in the cerebral cortex, transforms this representation into a percept that reflects the physical characteristics of objects and surfaces in the environment. To construct a reliable and informative percept, the visual system discounts the influence of extraneous factors such as illumination, occlusions, and viewing conditions. This perceptual “invariance” can be thought of as the brain’s solution to an inverse inference problem in which the physical factors that gave rise to the retinal image are estimated. While the processes of perception and recognition seem fast and effortless, it is a challenging computational problem that involves a substantial proportion of the primate brain.


Caenorhabditis elegans Olfaction  

Douglas K. Reilly and Jagan Srinivasan

To survive, animals must properly sense their surrounding environment. The types of sensation that allow for detecting these changes can be categorized as tactile, thermal, aural, or olfactory. Olfaction is one of the most primitive senses, involving the detection of environmental chemical cues. Organisms must sense and discriminate between abiotic and biogenic cues, necessitating a system that can react and respond to changes quickly. The nematode, Caenorhabditis elegans, offers a unique set of tools for studying the biology of olfactory sensation. The olfactory system in C. elegans is comprised of 14 pairs of amphid neurons in the head and two pairs of phasmid neurons in the tail. The male nervous system contains an additional 89 neurons, many of which are exposed to the environment and contribute to olfaction. The cues sensed by these olfactory neurons initiate a multitude of responses, ranging from developmental changes to behavioral responses. Environmental cues might initiate entry into or exit from a long-lived alternative larval developmental stage (dauer), or pheromonal stimuli may attract sexually mature mates, or repel conspecifics in crowded environments. C. elegans are also capable of sensing abiotic stimuli, exhibiting attraction and repulsion to diverse classes of chemicals. Unlike canonical mammalian olfactory neurons, C. elegans chemosensory neurons express more than one receptor per cell. This enables detection of hundreds of chemical structures and concentrations by a chemosensory nervous system with few cells. However, each neuron detects certain classes of olfactory cues, and, combined with their synaptic pathways, elicit similar responses (i.e., aversive behaviors). The functional architecture of this chemosensory system is capable of supporting the development and behavior of nematodes in a manner efficient enough to allow for the genus to have a cosmopolitan distribution.


Active Electroreception in Weakly Electric Fish  

Angel Ariel Caputi

American gymnotiformes and African mormyriformes have evolved an active sensory system using a self-generated electric field as a carrier of signals. Objects polarized by the discharge of a specialized electric organ project their images on the skin where electroreceptors tuned to the time course of the self-generated field transduce local signals carrying information about impedance, shape, size, and location of objects, as well as electrocommunication messages, and encode them as primary afferents trains of spikes. This system is articulated with other cutaneous systems (passive electroreception and mechanoception) as well as proprioception informing the shape of the fish’s body. Primary afferents project on the electrosensory lobe where electrosensory signals are compared with expectation signals resulting from the integration of recent past electrosensory, other sensory, and, in the case of mormyriformes, electro- and skeleton-motor corollary discharges. This ensemble of signals converges on the apical dendrites of the principal cells where a working memory of the recent past, and therefore predictable input, is continuously built up and updated as a pattern of synaptic weights. The efferent neurons of the electrosensory lobe also project to the torus and indirectly to other brainstem nuclei that implement automatic electro- and skeleton-motor behaviors. Finally, the torus projects via the preglomerular nucleus to the telencephalon where cognitive functions, including “electroperception” of shape-, size- and impedance-related features of objects, recognition of conspecifics, perception based decisions, learning, and abstraction, are organized.


Neuroinflammation and Neuroplasticity in Pain  

Jürgen Sandkühler

Much progress has been made in unraveling the mechanisms that underlie the transition from acute to chronic pain. Traditional beliefs are being replaced by novel, more powerful concepts that consider the mutual interplay of neuronal and non-neuronal cells in the nervous system during the pathogenesis of chronic pain. The new focus is on the role of neuroinflammation for neuroplasticity in nociceptive pathways and for the generation, amplification, and mislocation of pain. The latest insights are reviewed here and provide a basis for understanding the interdependence of chronic pain and its comorbidities. The new concepts will guide the search for future therapies to prevent and reverse chronic pain. Long-term changes in the properties and functions of nerve cells, including changes in synaptic strength, membrane excitability, and the effects of inhibitory neurotransmitters, can result from a wide variety of conditions. In the nociceptive system, painful stimuli, peripheral inflammation, nerve injuries, the use of or withdrawal from opioids—all can lead to enhanced pain sensitivity, to the generation of pain, and/or to the spread of pain to unaffected sites of the body. Non-neuronal cells, especially microglia and astrocytes, contribute to changes in nociceptive processing. Recent studies revealed not only that glial cells support neuroplasticity but also that their activation can trigger long-term changes in the nociceptive system.


Sensing Polarized Light in Insects  

Thomas F. Mathejczyk and Mathias F. Wernet

Evolution has produced vast morphological and behavioral diversity amongst insects, including very successful adaptations to a diverse range of ecological niches spanning the invasion of the sky by flying insects, the crawling lifestyle on (or below) the earth, and the (semi-)aquatic life on (or below) the water surface. Developing the ability to extract a maximal amount of useful information from their environment was crucial for ensuring the survival of many insect species. Navigating insects rely heavily on a combination of different visual and non-visual cues to reliably orient under a wide spectrum of environmental conditions while avoiding predators. The pattern of linearly polarized skylight that results from scattering of sunlight in the atmosphere is one important navigational cue that many insects can detect. Here we summarize progress made toward understanding how different insect species sense polarized light. First, we present behavioral studies with “true” insect navigators (central-place foragers, like honeybees or desert ants), as well as insects that rely on polarized light to improve more “basic” orientation skills (like dung beetles). Second, we provide an overview over the anatomical basis of the polarized light detection system that these insects use, as well as the underlying neural circuitry. Third, we emphasize the importance of physiological studies (electrophysiology, as well as genetically encoded activity indicators, in Drosophila) for understanding both the structure and function of polarized light circuitry in the insect brain. We also discuss the importance of an alternative source of polarized light that can be detected by many insects: linearly polarized light reflected off shiny surfaces like water represents an important environmental factor, yet the anatomy and physiology of underlying circuits remain incompletely understood.


Cortical Processing of Odorants  

Yaniv Cohen, Emmanuelle Courtiol, Regina M. Sullivan, and Donald A. Wilson

Odorants, inhaled through the nose or exhaled from the mouth through the nose, bind to receptors on olfactory sensory neurons. Olfactory sensory neurons project in a highly stereotyped fashion into the forebrain to a structure called the olfactory bulb, where odorant-specific spatial patterns of neural activity are evoked. These patterns appear to reflect the molecular features of the inhaled stimulus. The olfactory bulb, in turn, projects to the olfactory cortex, which is composed of multiple sub-units including the anterior olfactory nucleus, the olfactory tubercle, the cortical nucleus of the amygdala, the anterior and posterior piriform cortex, and the lateral entorhinal cortex. Due to differences in olfactory bulb inputs, local circuitry and other factors, each of these cortical sub-regions appears to contribute to different aspects of the overall odor percept. For example, there appears to be some spatial organization of olfactory bulb inputs to the cortical nucleus of the amygdala, and this region may be involved in the expression of innate odor hedonic preferences. In contrast, the olfactory bulb projection to the piriform cortex is highly distributed and not spatially organized, allowing the piriform to function as a combinatorial, associative array, producing the emergence of experience-dependent odor-objects (e.g., strawberry) from the molecular features extracted in the periphery. Thus, the full perceptual experience of an odor requires involvement of a large, highly dynamic cortical network.


Visual Attention  

Sabine Kastner and Timothy J. Buschman

Natural scenes are cluttered and contain many objects that cannot all be processed simultaneously. Due to this limited processing capacity, neural mechanisms are needed to selectively enhance the information that is most relevant to one’s current behavior and to filter unwanted information. We refer to these mechanisms as “selective attention.” Attention has been studied extensively at the behavioral level in a variety of paradigms, most notably, Treisman’s visual search and Posner’s paradigm. These paradigms have also provided the basis for studies directed at understanding the neural mechanisms underlying attentional selection, both in the form of neuroimaging studies in humans and intracranial electrophysiology in non-human primates. The selection of behaviorally relevant information is mediated by a large-scale network that includes regions in all major lobes as well as subcortical structures. Attending to a visual stimulus modulates processing across the visual processing hierarchy with stronger effects in higher-order areas. Current research is aimed at characterizing the functions of the different network nodes as well as the dynamics of their functional connectivity.


Auditory Hair Cells and Sensory Transduction  

Jeffrey R. Holt and Gwenaëlle S.G. Géléoc

The organs of the vertebrate inner ear respond to a variety of mechanical stimuli: semicircular canals are sensitive to angular velocity, the saccule and utricle respond to linear acceleration (including gravity), and the cochlea is sensitive to airborne vibration, or sound. The ontogenically related lateral line organs, spaced along the sides of aquatic vertebrates, sense water movement. All these organs have a common receptor cell type, which is called the hair cell, for the bundle of enlarged microvilli protruding from its apical surface. In different organs, specialized accessory structures serve to collect, filter, and then deliver these physical stimuli to the hair bundles. The proximal stimulus for all hair cells is deflection of the mechanosensitive hair bundle. Hair cells convert mechanical information contained within the temporal pattern of hair bundle deflections into electrical signals, which they transmit to the brain for interpretation.