Interdisciplinary Initiatives Program Round 3 – 2006

Jennifer Raymond, Neurobiology
Mark Schnitzer, Biology
Gregory Barsh, Genetics

This project pilots a new and powerful experimental tool for analyzing how computations are performed by neural circuits. In particular, we will develop an experimental approach to selectively inactivate specific cellular components of a neural circuit, which will enable us to determine which aspects of the computation depend on a given component of the circuit. We will pilot this technique in the cerebellum, which plays a key role in motor learning, the process by which movements become smooth and accurate with practice. Motor learning is most apparent in the grace and skill of professional athletes and dancers, but as every parent of small child can attest, even ordinary movements most of us take for granted, such as walking, are learned through extensive practice. Our experiments will provide one of the first empirical tests of how the circuit architecture of the cerebellum is specialized for this type of learning. In addition, the general approach we are developing is highly applicable to other brain circuits, and will advance our understanding of how the brain enables us to perceive, think and move. Such knowledge has important clinical implications, and will aid in the engineering of devices that match human performance.