Navigation is an essential cognitive skill in the life of most animals. It moving along space in order to procure the advantages provided by different places in the environment, and to adapt to ever changing resources, dangers and needs.
Neuroscience has made great advances in understanding the neural underpinnings of navigation by the discovery of a neurons sharply tuned for spatial variables: Head Direction Cells, active when the direction the animal is facing a certain direction; Place Cells, encoding the location the animal is in; Border Cells, being active at the boundaries of an enclosure and Grid Cells firing according to the location of the animal in space, yet doing so for multiple locations organized in a perfect hexagon.
My work addresses the neural bases of navigation in the context of brain structure (i.e. the parasubiculum) and ethologically relevant behaviors (i.e. homing and playing).
At the beginning of my PhD I focused on the structure function relation of the parasubiculum, in the context of spatial representation. The parasubiculum is an understudied area of the parahippocampal cortex of mammals. By combining histology, tracing, identified cell recordings and extracellular recordings we performed the most comprehensive study of the parasubiculum up to date.
What affects our metrics of space?
Also during my PhD, I study the neural bases of homing. Animals care about their homes. It is a place with a very strong positive valence associated to kin and safety. Animals are capable of returning home. We make use of the lab-rat’s strong attachment to its home cage in order to study whether mammals maintain an online representation of the direction towards home, a home vector.
Almost at the end of my PhD I began studying navigation in a complementary behavioral context, an inter-species role playing game. By developing a novel behavioral paradigm in neuroscience, playing ‘Hide and Seek’ with rats, we are able to study mammalian play in the context of role playing and research its neural bases. We played ‘Hide and Seek’ with rats, and found that they acquired the game easily and played by the rules.
Weakly electric fish are able to sense their environments using a self generated electric field. Sensors of their skin allow them to measure how conductive or resistive objects in the water perturb this field, generating an electric image.
This incredible sense depends on the generation of electrical discharges by a specialized organ in the fish body called "Electric Organ". My first paper studied electric image generation in a south-american weakly electric fish with a distributed electric organ. We used biophysical models to study how these fish generate an electric image.
We further applied our biophysical models to study image generation in the context of active sensing. We quantified actual fish behavior while exploring conductive objects. We then used this behavior to "reconstruct" the electric images the fish was perceiving during object exploration. This allowed us to postulate temporally dynamic cues for electric perception.