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Cognitive and Systems Neuroscience

Group leader prof. Cyriel Pennartz

The global research aim of our group is to elucidate how neuronal networks distributed across the prefrontal cortex, temporal cortex and striatum cooperate in a number of cognitive processes, including learning and memory consolidation, attention and sensory integration. This aim is pursued using a variety of techniques and at various aggregate levels, ranging from the sub-cellular to macroscopic and behavioural domain. Nonetheless, most of the research focuses on the level of systems physiology.

The brain consists of billions of neurons which mediate complex cognitive processes such as memory, attention, decision-making and consciousness. How can it be that such ´mental´ operations are implemented by the electrical activity of networks of communicating neurons? How can this collective network activity be explained from electrochemical processes that direct neuronal communication at the cellular and molecular level?

In the CSN-group these general questions are elaborated in the following specific themes of research:

  • Memory consolidation, sleep and memory retrieval
  • Neural coding and circuitry for motivational control, attention and decision-making
  • Multimodal sensory integration and neural representation of space and context

The group uses a wide array of techniques to approach these questions, ranging from patch-clamp techniques in brain slices to ensemble recordings and functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI). In this multi-level approach we study how groups of neurons within the brain behave during learning tasks and are able to ´replay´ their experience-specific patterns of electrical activity during subsequent sleep. Using human brain imaging and transcranial magnetic stimulation we investigate which brain structures take part in encoding, consolidation and retrieval of memories. We study how cell assemblies in the hippocampus, a structure crucial for memory of daily-life events, communicate with assemblies in ventral striatum and prefrontal cortex to exert control over formation of emotional memory and decision making.

The wiring and neurochemical modulation of these structures is investigated by patch clamp techniques and studies of transmitter release. The research lines on sensory integration and spatial representation rely on two-photon microscopy, ensemble recordings and computational modelling and focuses on the hippocampal formation and sensory neocortex. Malfunctioning of the brain structures under investigation has been implied in brain disorders such as schizophrenia, drug addiction, Alzheimer´s and Parkinson´s disease.