Research projects available in the different NERF labs

Vision to Action lab PI: Vincent Bonin

We are looking for creative enthusiastic experimental neuroscientists or engineers to join our team focused on the neural circuits of vision and action at NERF in Leuven, Belgium. Our lab studies how brain circuits are built and wired up to give rise to perception and behavior, and also how they develop and behave in the context of injury, plasticity and degeneration.

The selected students will work on neural circuits of visual processing and visually-guided behavior using in vivo genetic circuit tracing, large-scale widefield and cellular 2-photon calcium imaging, Neuropixels recordings, and behavioral assays.

The ideal candidates have (1) computer programming, engineering and English communication skills (written and oral), (2) lab experience in biology, physics or engineering, and (3) a strong motivation to apply in vivo cellular and/or behavioral approaches to study neural circuits and neural information processing.

The Vision-to-Action lab has a strong multidisciplinary team of 4 postdocs, 3 PhD students and 1 engineer with diverse backgrounds working on vision, multisensory integration, plasticity and neural development. Our highly collaborative work involves close collaboration with multiple research teams and world experts on visual behaviors, spatial learning, neural development, brain plasticity, and neurodegeneration. The selected students will partake in all steps of the project, development of experimental assays, conducting the physiological and behavioral measurements, performing behavioral and physiological data analysis in MATLAB and Python, drafting of research proposals and scientific articles.

Farrow lab PI: Karl Farrow

The Farrow lab is looking for creative, computationally literate individuals interested in performing in-vivo experiments, then applying their quantitative skills to determine the mechanistic relationships between neural activity in identified circuits and behavior.

Many of the computations performed by the nervous system can be interpreted as answers to particular challenges posed by the live histories of an animal. However how neural circuits are organized to link sensory inputs with the activation of behavior remains unknown. The labs central aim is to determine how neural circuits in the brain are organized to disseminate information to enable the necessary computations that link sensory stimuli with the triggering of suitable behaviors. This is done to: uncover fundamental principals of how the brain is organized; determine how defects in circuitry leads to brain dysfunction, and determine what aspects of this circuitry is conserved across evolution. To address these questions, we employ large-scale recordings of neural activity in targeted circuits spanning multiple brain regions during visually evoked behaviors in virtual reality environments.

Project 1: Retina to behavior

This project uses a combination of viral based neural circuit tracing techniques and calcium imaging to delineate the visual circuits involved in foraging and avoidance behaviors in mice. This work will involve the labeling and recording of targeted circuits using transsynaptic viral tracing and two photon calcium imaging to determine how distinct visual features extracted by the retina are distributed by the superior colliculus to motor centers that trigger motor output.

Project 2: Information routing in the brain

This project is a collaboration with Alan Urban. Combination of whole brain functional ultrasound imaging (fUSI) with optogenetics and NeuroPixel Probes to analyze the brain activity during natural visually evoked behavior in a virtual reality environment. This work will involve the design of behavioral assays for mice, then the in-vivo recording of whole brain activity to delineate the brain circuitry and computations that link visual inputs to behavior.

Haesler lab PI: Sebastian Haesler

Curiosity refers to the intrinsic tendency of all animals to explore the unknown. The type of curiosity which is evoked by the novelty of sensory stimuli, is referred to as perceptual curiosity. Across animal species, stimuli never encountered before elicit arousal and evoke distinct orienting behaviors. They also activate catecholaminergic neuromodulation systems. How the brain initiates exploration in response to novel stimuli is currently not well understood. Specifically, it is unclear if stimulus novelty is detected separately in each sensory modality or if there is a brain area for multimodal stimulus novelty detection. Also, the mechanism of stimulus novelty detection remains to be identified. Finally, it is unknown how novel stimuli trigger distinct motor outputs.

We have previously established an olfactory perceptual curiosity paradigm in mice, based on the spontaneous sniffing response to novel stimuli. We use this paradigm to reveal the organization of circuits underlying perceptual curiosity in the olfactory modality.

Project 1: Identify and characterize an olfactory pathway to brainstem motor nuclei

Using viral tracing, functional ultrasound imaging (with A. Urban), electrophysiological recordings and optogenetics, you characterize the anatomy and function of a new pathway we recently discovered, which routes olfactory information from the anterior olfactory cortex to motor output structures.

Project 2: Investigate the mechanism of olfactory novelty detection

To understand how a stimulus-selective neural representation (odor A vs B) at the level of the AON transforms into a category-selective representation (novel vs. familiar odors), we study the information transfer between different olfactory areas, using simultaneous recording with multiple high-density Neuropixel probes (384 selectable channels/probe). As a member of the international Neuropixel-consortium, we have access to next generation 4-shank Neuropixel 2.0 probes. These new probes also have a smaller footprint, which allows for chronic implantation in mice. This enables recording very large numbers of neurons simultaneously, which has been a major limitation in the field. With analytical methods, we will then characterize the “transfer function” between different olfactory cortical areas.

The Haesler lab is a great fit for you if are passionate about the question of how neural activity in the brain gives rise to behavior. You like tinkering, you enjoy programming and quantitative data analysis (e.g. Matlab) and you want to develop a broad range of skills in systems neuroscience.

You are a great fit to the lab if you have a background (Master degree or equivalent) in a relevant field of study (e.g. engineering, physics or biology); you are self-motivated, ambitious and intellectually curious. Prior experience in electrophysiology or behavioral/neural data analysis is very welcome but not indispensable. Applicants with no practical experience in biology are encouraged to apply, provided they are excited about learning the required experimental skills.

Kloosterman lab PI: Fabian Kloosterman

The Kloosterman Lab studies the neural basis of information processing and storage in the mammalian brain. We use a combination of neurophysiology, cellular imaging, optogenetics and advanced (real-time) neural signal processing in awake, behaving rodents.

We are looking for candidates who are self-motivated, critical, and have strong quantitative and technical skills. You have a background in neuroscience, physics, engineering or computer science and strong interest in experimental or computational neuroscience. Candidates should be proficient in English and have good written and oral communication skills.

Our research focuses on the cellular activity patterns during navigational task learning and sleep that underlie spatial memory processing. In the past we have shown that learning experiences are reflected in unique cellular patterns of activity in the hippocampus – a critical brain structure for long-term memory – and that these patterns are replayed spontaneously during sleep. Our aim is to understand how offline rehearsals drive the acquisition, consolidation and execution of demanding behavioral tasks.

Available projects include 1) mapping the impact of hippocampal output activity during offline memory replay on downstream cortical brain regions; 2) revealing how cortical inputs modulate hippocampal representations and 3) studying the contribution of subcortical circuits to preferred memory consolidation of rewarded experiences. For these projects, candidates will use high-density Neuropixels probes and/or cellular imaging approaches, combined with optogenetic manipulations to measure and perturb neural activity in rodents that learn and perform a spatial memory task.

Takeoka lab PI: Aya Takeoka

The Takeoka lab is looking for individuals with a strong drive to succeed, a positive attitude,and a background in either physiology or engineering with strong qualitative training. The candidate should also be a team player with good communication skills. In addition to scientific excellence and integrity, we value mentorship, collaboration, and innovation.

The central question that the Takeoka lab addresses is how animals learn to generate and control motor output in health and disease. Currently, the lab focuses on 1) understanding how sensory feedback, with a primary focus on proprioceptive and visual feedback, contribute to motor learning, and 2) study how motor memory is encoded within the spinal cord circuits.

Project 1: Learning and memory without the brain: mechanisms of movement automaticity

The term “muscle memory” is often used to describe effortless execution of skilled motor patterns that developed over time. To achieve this automaticity, we hypothesized that ability to execute such motor patterns without conscious efforts following repetitive training is encoded in the spinal cord network by forming “spinal memory”.[Field]The aim of this project is to dissect how repetitive motor training reinforces learned locomotor behavior, influence neuronal recruitments, and neuronal activity patterns of specific population of neurons.

Project 2: Proprioceptive and visual feedback integration in goal-directed reaching movement

In this project, we study how visual information mediated by the superior colliculus. Combination of mouse genetics, detailed 3D kinematic analyses, circuit tracing, optogenetics and NeuroPixel Probes to link cell-type, and connection-type specific brain activity to goal-directed reaching movement.

A joint project in the Bonin, Farrow and Takeoka labs

Overlapping interest of the three labs is to understand a context-dependent role of the primary and higher visual cortices in visually-guided behaviors. A large number of visually-guided behaviors (i.e., escape and freezing behaviors as well as goal-direct forelimb movements) do not require information processing via the primary visual cortex, but rather subcortical structures. In this joint project, we will use a large repertoire of behavioral paradigms combined with neuronal recordings and imaging to decipher a circuit-level logic on which context the V1 is required and how context-specific visual information is processed through V1.