Heads of Laboratories
Gaby Maimon, Ph.D.
Laboratory of Integrative Brain Function
The Maimon lab aims to link the electrical activity of neurons and the biochemical action of molecules to their computational roles in animal behavior. The lab has a particular interest in understanding how central brain structures, distant from the sensory and motor periphery, govern behavioral choice.
Work in the Maimon lab is inspired by the observation that despite having tiny brains, insects perform sophisticated computations, such as bees executing a waggle dance or desert ants navigating home after a journey for food. By seeking a comprehensive description of how small nervous systems perform specific neural calculations, the Maimon lab aims to provide new inspiration on how to better understand integrative processes in larger brains. Historically, reduced models have provided pioneering discoveries in early stages of understanding in many fields of biology.
To this end, the Maimon lab focuses on locomotor decision making in the fruit fly, Drosophila melanogaster. Fruit flies are an established system for genetics, and have served an important role in ethology, the study of natural animal behavior. The Maimon lab combines these classical approaches with modern electrophysiological, imaging, and neuronal perturbation methods to forge new insights into higher brain functions.
A primary approach taken by the lab is to record the physiological activity of genetically identified neurons in actively behaving flies. In these experiments, flies perform flight or walking behaviors while glued to a tiny platform that allows one to record from neurons in their brains. The flies generate locomotor behaviors either as spontaneous actions or in response to sensory stimuli, such as visual images on a panoramic display. The Maimon lab uses the sensitive patch-clamp technique to measure small changes in membrane voltage in single neurons. They combine this technique with imaging approaches to visualize activity in larger ensembles of cells. Behavioral-physiological experiments typically lead to subsequent studies that leverage the molecular-genetic tools in Drosophila to flesh out mechanisms.
In recent work, the Maimon lab has found that flies are partially blind each time they make a rapid flight turn. Such blindness was classically predicted because every time a fly turns, the image of the world sweeps briskly over the retina and the fly needs a mechanism to ignore this massive self-generated sensory stimulus. The lab has discovered that fly visual neurons receive a cell-type tailored silencing input with each turn. Likewise, when humans make rapid eye movements, our brains face the same problem as the turning fly: We need to ignore the self-generated visual input caused by these movements. Indeed, it has been known for decades that human visual perception is altered briefly with each eye movement. The work in Drosophila shows that even animals with small brains alter visual processing with each gaze change. Work in flies could thus help lead to a better understanding of the cellular basis for dynamic perceptual silencing across the animal kingdom, including in humans.
In other ongoing projects, the lab is testing how flies decide which action to initiate and when, how flies measure angles and distances while traveling, and how they store the values of environmental variables so as to influence local behavioral choices. This research program provides a platform for discovering basic mechanisms of how brains integrate, think, and decide.
Kim, A.J. et al. Cellular evidence for efference copy in Drosophila visuomotor processing. Nat. Neurosci. (2015) in press.
Maimon, G. Modulation of visual physiology by behavioral state in monkeys, mice, and flies. Curr. Opin. Neurobiol. 21, 559–564 (2011).
Maimon, G. et al. Active flight increases the gain of visual motion processing in Drosophila. Nat. Neurosci. 13, 393–399 (2010).
Bhandawat, V. et al. Olfactory modulation of flight in Drosophila is sensitive, selective and rapid. J. Exp. Biol. 213, 3625–3635 (2010).
Maimon, G. et al. A simple vision-based algorithm for decision making in flying Drosophila. Curr. Biol. 18, 464–470 (2008).
Dr. Maimon received his undergraduate degree from Cornell University and his Ph.D. in neuroscience from Harvard University in 2005, working in the laboratory of John Assad. He conducted his postdoctoral training from 2005 to 2010 at the California Institute of Technology with Michael Dickinson. He joined The Rockefeller University as assistant professor in 2011.
Dr. Maimon’s honors include the 2012 Presidential Early Career Award for Science and Engineering, the 2012 NIH Director’s New Innovator Award, the Searle Scholar Award, the Alfred P. Sloan Research Fellowship, the New York Stem Cell Foundation’s Robertson Neuroscience Investigator Award and the Irma T. Hirschl/Monique Weill-Caulier Trusts Research Award. He was named one of Popular Science’s Brilliant Ten in 2011.
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