Our research goal is to understand, on the whole-brain but single-cell level, how entire neural circuits generate adaptable behaviors and how plasticity reorganizes the functional properties of these circuits to implement learned changes in behavior. The larval zebrafish offers the unique opportunity to image the entire brain, at the single-cell level, using two-photon microscopy. This gives us the opportunity to go beyond studying subsets of cells and allows us to monitor the activity of all cells in the brain of a vertebrate. Moreover, my previous work allows us to do this during behavior.
One behavior of interest is adaptive motor control, a behavior that relies on circuits in the cerebellum, inferior olive, and other brain areas, and is as important to fish as it is to humans. We use advances in microscopy, genetics and a new virtual reality setup for zebrafish to systematically study the neural basis of such adaptive behaviors.
In previous work that was recently published in Nature, I developed a paradigm for recording neural activity, at the single-cell level, in the entire brain of larval zebrafish, as they behave in a virtual environment. I showed that in this virtual setting, these tiny animals are able to perform short-term motor learning. I used whole-brain imaging and identified the cerebellum and the inferior olive as brain areas with activity particularly correlated with the behavior. I then showed that lesioning the inferior olive removes the ability of the fish to adapt its motor programs to changes in visual feedback, opening the door to studying cerebellar-driven motor control in this tractable brain.
Imaging whole-brain neuronal activity while the fish navigate through a virtual environment is made possible by electrical recordings from their motor neuron axons, from which their intended swimming speed and direction is decoded in real-time and fed into a "swim simulator" that alters a visual display as if the fish were actually swimming.
A general goal of the lab is to address the question: Are neural circuits hard-wired to generate a fixed pattern of behavior in response to a stimulus? In most cases, the answer is no—animals continuously adapt their behavior to changing environments. This includes basic changes in the environment, such as luminosity, and changes in the reward structure as well as changes in the physics of the body and the environment, such as when humans step onto a slippery floor or a fish swims into more viscous water, or after injury. This adaptability is the key to the successful function of the central nervous system in driving behavior. How is this continuous learning and adaptation implemented on the circuit level? How does the function of neural networks change when an animal is confronted with a change in the environment, and by what mechanism is this mediated? How does information get transmitted across brain regions, and how does this change when the fish adapts to new situations? We aim to tackle these questions on the whole-brain, single-cell level for multiple behaviors, using a combination of imaging, and perturbing, neuronal activity during fictive virtual-reality behavior.
Brain function relies on communication between large populations of neurons across multiple brain areas, a full understanding of which would require knowledge of the time-varying activity of all neurons in the central nervous system. Here we use light-sheet microscopy to record activity, reported through the genetically encoded calcium indicator GCaMP5G, from the entire volume of the brain of the larval zebrafish in vivo at 0.8 Hz, capturing more than 80% of all neurons at single-cell resolution. Demonstrating how this technique can be used to reveal functionally defined circuits across the brain, we identify two populations of neurons with correlated activity patterns. One circuit consists of hindbrain neurons functionally coupled to spinal cord neuropil. The other consists of an anatomically symmetric population in the anterior hindbrain, with activity in the left and right halves oscillating in antiphase, on a timescale of 20 s, and coupled to equally slow oscillations in the inferior olive.
Optogenetic tools can be used to manipulate neuronal activity in a reversible and specific manner. In recent years, such methods have been applied to uncover causal relationships between activity in specified neuronal circuits and behavior in the larval zebrafish. In this small, transparent, genetic model organism, noninvasive manipulation and monitoring of neuronal activity with light is possible throughout the nervous system. Here we review recent work in which these new tools have been applied to zebrafish, and discuss some of the existing challenges of these approaches.
Prior Publications (9)
Identification of Nonvisual Photomotor Response Cells in the Vertebrate Hindbrain.The Journal of neuroscience : the official journal of the Society for Neuroscience 2013
D. Kokel, T. W. Dunn, M. B. Ahrens, R. Alshut, C. J. Cheung, L. Saint-Amant, G. Bruni, R. Mateus, T. J. Ham, T. Shiraki, Y. Fukada, D. Kojima, J. J. Yeh, R. Mikut, J. Lintig, F. Engert, and R. T. Peterson The Journal of neuroscience : the official journal of the Society for Neuroscience, 33:3834-3843 (2013)
Nonvisual photosensation enables animals to sense light without sight. However, the cellular and molecular mechanisms of nonvisual photobehaviors are poorly understood, especially in vertebrate animals. Here, we describe the photomotor response (PMR), a robust and reproducible series of motor behaviors in zebrafish that is elicited by visual wavelengths of light but does not require the eyes, pineal gland, or other canonical deep-brain photoreceptive organs. Unlike the relatively slow effects of canonical nonvisual pathways, motor circuits are strongly and quickly (seconds) recruited during the PMR behavior. We find that the hindbrain is both necessary and sufficient to drive these behaviors. Using in vivo calcium imaging, we identify a discrete set of neurons within the hindbrain whose responses to light mirror the PMR behavior. Pharmacological inhibition of the visual cycle blocks PMR behaviors, suggesting that opsin-based photoreceptors control this behavior. These data represent the first known light-sensing circuit in the vertebrate hindbrain.
A fundamental question in neuroscience is how entire neural circuits generate behaviour and adapt it to changes in sensory feedback. Here we use two-photon calcium imaging to record the activity of large populations of neurons at the cellular level, throughout the brain of larval zebrafish expressing a genetically encoded calcium sensor, while the paralysed animals interact fictively with a virtual environment and rapidly adapt their motor output to changes in visual feedback. We decompose the network dynamics involved in adaptive locomotion into four types of neuronal response properties, and provide anatomical maps of the corresponding sites. A subset of these signals occurred during behavioural adjustments and are candidates for the functional elements that drive motor learning. Lesions to the inferior olive indicate a specific functional role for olivocerebellar circuitry in adaptive locomotion. This study enables the analysis of brain-wide dynamics at single-cell resolution during behaviour.
Sensory stimulation can systematically bias the perceived passage of time, but why and how this happens is mysterious. In this report, we provide evidence that such biases may ultimately derive from an innate and adaptive use of stochastically evolving dynamic stimuli to help refine estimates derived from internal timekeeping mechanisms. A simplified statistical model based on probabilistic expectations of stimulus change derived from the second-order temporal statistics of the natural environment makes three predictions. First, random noise-like stimuli whose statistics violate natural expectations should induce timing bias. Second, a previously unexplored obverse of this effect is that similar noise stimuli with natural statistics should reduce the variability of timing estimates. Finally, this reduction in variability should scale with the interval being timed, so as to preserve the overall Weber law of interval timing. All three predictions are borne out experimentally. Thus, in the context of our novel theoretical framework, these results suggest that observers routinely rely on sensory input to augment their sense of the passage of time, through a process of Bayesian inference based on expectations of change in the natural environment.
The representation of acoustic stimuli in the brainstem forms the basis for higher auditory processing. While some characteristics of this representation (e.g. tuning curve) are widely accepted, it remains a challenge to predict the firing rate at high temporal resolution in response to complex stimuli. In this study we explore models for in vivo, single cell responses in the medial nucleus of the trapezoid body (MNTB) under complex sound stimulation. We estimate a family of models, the multilinear models, encompassing the classical spectrotemporal receptive field and allowing arbitrary input-nonlinearities and certain multiplicative interactions between sound energy and its short-term auditory context. We compare these to models of more traditional type, and also evaluate their performance under various stimulus representations. Using the context model, 75% of the explainable variance could be predicted based on a cochlear-like, gamma-tone stimulus representation. The presence of multiplicative contextual interactions strongly reduces certain inhibitory/suppressive regions of the linear kernels, suggesting an underlying nonlinear mechanism, e.g. cochlear or synaptic suppression, as the source of the suppression in MNTB neuronal responses. In conclusion, the context model provides a rich and still interpretable extension over many previous phenomenological models for modeling responses in the auditory brainstem at submillisecond resolution.
Many perceptual processes and neural computations, such as speech recognition, motor control and learning, depend on the ability to measure and mark the passage of time. However, the processes that make such temporal judgements possible are unknown. A number of different hypothetical mechanisms have been advanced, all of which depend on the known, temporally predictable evolution of a neural or psychological state, possibly through oscillations or the gradual decay of a memory trace. Alternatively, judgements of elapsed time might be based on observations of temporally structured, but stochastic processes. Such processes need not be specific to the sense of time; typical neural and sensory processes contain at least some statistical structure across a range of time scales. Here, we investigate the statistical properties of an estimator of elapsed time which is based on a simple family of stochastic process.
We describe a class of models that predict how the instantaneous firing rate of a neuron depends on a dynamic stimulus. The models utilize a learnt pointwise nonlinear transform of the stimulus, followed by a linear filter that acts on the sequence of transformed inputs. In one case, the nonlinear transform is the same at all filter lag-times. Thus, this "input nonlinearity" converts the initial numerical representation of stimulus value to a new representation that provides optimal input to the subsequent linear model. We describe algorithms that estimate both the input nonlinearity and the linear weights simultaneously; and present techniques to regularise and quantify uncertainty in the estimates. In a second approach, the model is generalized to allow a different nonlinear transform of the stimulus value at each lag-time. Although more general, this model is algorithmically more straightforward to fit. However, it has many more degrees of freedom than the first approach, thus requiring more data for accurate estimation. We test the feasibility of these methods on synthetic data, and on responses from a neuron in rodent barrel cortex. The models are shown to predict responses to novel data accurately, and to recover several important neuronal response properties.
Nonlinearities and contextual influences in auditory cortical responses modeled with multilinear spectrotemporal methods.The Journal of neuroscience : the official journal of the Society for Neuroscience 2008
M. B. Ahrens, J. F. Linden, and M. Sahani The Journal of neuroscience : the official journal of the Society for Neuroscience, 28:1929-42 (2008)
The relationship between a sound and its neural representation in the auditory cortex remains elusive. Simple measures such as the frequency response area or frequency tuning curve provide little insight into the function of the auditory cortex in complex sound environments. Spectrotemporal receptive field (STRF) models, despite their descriptive potential, perform poorly when used to predict auditory cortical responses, showing that nonlinear features of cortical response functions, which are not captured by STRFs, are functionally important. We introduce a new approach to the description of auditory cortical responses, using multilinear modeling methods. These descriptions simultaneously account for several nonlinearities in the stimulus-response functions of auditory cortical neurons, including adaptation, spectral interactions, and nonlinear sensitivity to sound level. The models reveal multiple inseparabilities in cortical processing of time lag, frequency, and sound level, and suggest functional mechanisms by which auditory cortical neurons are sensitive to stimulus context. By explicitly modeling these contextual influences, the models are able to predict auditory cortical responses more accurately than are STRF models. In addition, they can explain some forms of stimulus dependence in STRFs that were previously poorly understood.
Biophysically accurate multicompartmental models of individual neurons have significantly advanced our understanding of the input-output function of single cells. These models depend on a large number of parameters that are difficult to estimate. In practice, they are often hand-tuned to match measured physiological behaviors, thus raising questions of identifiability and interpretability. We propose a statistical approach to the automatic estimation of various biologically relevant parameters, including 1) the distribution of channel densities, 2) the spatiotemporal pattern of synaptic input, and 3) axial resistances across extended dendrites. Recent experimental advances, notably in voltage-sensitive imaging, motivate us to assume access to: i) the spatiotemporal voltage signal in the dendrite and ii) an approximate description of the channel kinetics of interest. We show here that, given i and ii, parameters 1-3 can be inferred simultaneously by nonnegative linear regression; that this optimization problem possesses a unique solution and is guaranteed to converge despite the large number of parameters and their complex nonlinear interaction; and that standard optimization algorithms efficiently reach this optimum with modest computational and data requirements. We demonstrate that the method leads to accurate estimations on a wide variety of challenging model data sets that include up to about 10(4) parameters (roughly two orders of magnitude more than previously feasible) and describe how the method gives insights into the functional interaction of groups of channels.
Our understanding of the input-output function of single cells has been substantially advanced by biophysically accurate multi-compartmental models. The large number of parameters needing hand tuning in these models has, however, somewhat hampered their applicability and interpretability. Here we propose a simple and well-founded method for automatic estimation of many of these key parameters: 1) the spatial distribution of channel densities on the cell’s membrane; 2) the spatiotemporal pattern of synaptic input; 3) the channels’ reversal potentials; 4) the intercompartmental conductances; and 5) the noise level in each compartment. We assume experimental access to: a) the spatiotemporal voltage signal in the dendrite (or some contiguous subpart thereof, e.g. via voltage sensitive imaging techniques), b) an approximate kinetic description of the channels and synapses present in each compartment, and c) the morphology of the part of the neuron under investigation. The key observation is that, given data a)-c), all of the parameters 1)-4) may be simultaneously inferred by a version of constrained linear regression; this regression, in turn, is efficiently solved using standard algorithms, without any “local minima” problems despite the large number of parameters and complex dynamics. The noise level 5) may also be estimated by standard techniques. We demonstrate the method’s accuracy on several model datasets, and describe techniques for quantifying the uncertainty in our estimates.