Heads of Laboratories
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.
Whereas much is known about sensory and motor processing in the nervous system, it remains less clear how brains perform higher, integrative functions such as deciding to initiate a movement, changing course once a movement has begun, incorporating past experiences into ongoing behavioral choices, flexibly coupling sensory inputs to correct motor outputs and ignoring irrelevant sensory stimuli so as to focus on relevant stimuli. The Maimon lab studies integrative processes such as these in the fruit fly, Drosophila melanogaster.
Fruit flies are an established system for genetics, with over 100 years of seminal findings. Flies have also served an important role in ethology, the study of natural animal behavior, and comparative studies across Drosophila have shed light on how innate behaviors evolve. The Maimon lab combines these classical approaches with modern electrophysiological methods to gain new insights into higher brain function.
Because flies are small, it has not been possible, traditionally, to record neuronal activity as they behave. Dr. Maimon recently developed a platform for behavioral neurophysiology in Drosophila. The primary approach taken by the lab is to use this new methodology to record the electrical activity of genetically identified neurons in actively behaving flies. In these experiments, flies typically perform tethered flight or walking behaviors in response to sensory stimuli, such as visual images presented on a panoramic display. The Maimon lab uses the sensitive patch-clamp technique to measure small changes in membrane voltage or current in single neurons. They combine this technique with imaging approaches to visualize physiological activity in larger groups of cells. The behavioral-physiological experiments typically lead to studies at the molecular-genetic level, to flesh out mechanism, and quantitative investigations of free behavior, to inform function.
As a first use of the behavioral-physiology platform, Dr. Maimon obtained recordings from a well-studied class of visual neurons in the fly brain, the vertical system (VS) cells. These neurons process visual motion and are thought to help flies stabilize their flight; however, no one had recorded from VS cells while flies were actually flying. Dr. Maimon demonstrated that VS cells double their response strength during flight, suggesting that the brain can dynamically increase the gain of visual signals when necessary. This change in gain may act like a gate; VS cells may drive downstream neurons effectively during locomotion, when response gain is high, but ineffectively during behavioral quiescence, when response gain is low. Similar gain changes have been observed in other species, including vertebrates, and thus studying Drosophila may give insight into how and why brains dynamically change the strength of sensory signals.
Future experiments will focus on central, integrative structures deeper within the fly nervous system and on behavioral paradigms designed to probe the computational capacities of the tiny fly brain. The work provides a platform for discovering basic mechanisms of how brains integrate, think and decide.
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 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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