Imagine you are walking in a park on a sunny summer day. You see a lovely bird – a Sparrow – fly past you and land on a tree branch. To your delight, the bird begins to sing. You appreciate this charming song and the bird who is singing it. But, if you stop to consider what is actually going on, you might realize that your brain is combining sensory information from your eyes and ears into a seamless perception of a singing Sparrow. These 2 types of sensory inputs to your brain are very different; yet, it is obvious to you that the song is clearly coming from the Sparrow in the tree nearby, and not one of the many other birds in the park. In my research, I am trying to figure out how that process works. We have billions of brain cells that talk to each other to process this sensory information but we do not know exactly how this processing happens. To address this broad fundamental question, my research questions include 1) How do these brain cells communicate with each other to combine the information from multiple senses; and 2) What are the mechanisms that allow these brain cells to understand this information and turn it into useful responses such as moving your eyes to see the bird in the tree?
There are two main reasons I am interested in this particular topic. First, my research will help us understand neural circuits in the normally functioning brain. This is a basic science research question; basic science underlies all treatments for human disease. We need to know what normal looks like in order to understand disease states. Secondly, sensory processing is abnormal in a number of neurodevelopmental disorders. In fact, a current hypothesis about Autism Spectrum Disorders states that children with Autism are overwhelmed by sensory information because they do not put sensory information from multiple channels – i.e. ears and eyes – together into perceptions the way typical children do. Therefore, they may see the world as a confusing array of disjointed sights and sounds. By studying the normal neural activity and comparing it to neural activity in an atypical brain, we can understand the underlying processes and develop therapeutic strategies for treating disorders like Autism.
Image: Spring sunset in Providence, RI.