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The 'Jennifer Aniston neuron'

World-class research on brain function described at public lecture on Friday 6th March at University of Leicester

Issued on 13 February 2009

A world-renowned neuroscientist and bio-engineer is to reveal details of his studies into what has been dubbed the ‘Jennifer Aniston neuron’ during a public lecture at the University of Leicester, as part of the University’s National Science and Engineering Week celebrations.

Professor Rodrigo Quian Quiroga discovered that a remarkable type of neuron in the brain fired in an ‘abstract’ manner to completely different pictures of familiar persons, for example Jennifer Aniston or Halle Berry.

He further discovered that given the firing of these neurons, it was possible to actually tell what the subjects were seeing far above chance – they were literally reading the mind.

Professor Quian Quiroga said: “It is fascinating to study how information about what we see, hear and touch, as well as our own memories and emotions, are represented by neurons in the brain. Research has shown that one neuron fired to, for instance, Jennifer Aniston, another one to Halle Berry, another one to the Sydney Opera House, etc.

“The responses were abstract, the neuron firing to Halle Berry responded to several different pictures of her and even to the letters of her name, but not to other people or names.

“One of the major scientific challenges of our days is to understand how information is represented by neurons in the brain. Although there has been spectacular progress in the last few decades, we are still far from comprehending, for example, how visual inputs are processed to create a conscious perception. Our main research interest is to study these principles of Neural Coding.

“Moreover, since complex behaviour is encoded by the activity of large populations of neurons, we are working on the development of advanced methods to extract useful information from these data.”

Professor Quian Quiroga continued: “I am examining how information about the external world (what we see, hear, touch) and our own internal representations (e.g. memories, emotions, etc.) is represented by neurons in the brain.

“For example, we can easily recognise a person in a fraction of a second, even when seen from different angles, with different sizes, colours, contrasts and under strikingly different conditions. But how neurons in the brain are capable of creating such an ‘abstract’ representation, disregarding basic visual details, is only starting to be known.”

Professor Quian Quiroga’s research has high clinical potential for the development of NeuroProsthetic devices, such as robotic arms driven by neural signals to be used by paralyzed patients.

Professor Quian Quiroga’s discovery has far-reaching implications not only for the development of neuronal prostheses, but for treatment of patients with pathologies involving the hippocampal formation, such as epilepsy, Alzheimers and schizophrenia and for further understanding of how perceptions and memories are represented in the brain.

Admission to ‘The Jennifer Aniston Neuron’ is free of charge and open to all. It takes place at 5.30pm in the Frank & Katherine May Lecture Theatre, Henry Wellcome Building, Lancaster Road on Friday 6th March.

More info on National Science and Engineering Week events at Leicester: http://www2.le.ac.uk/ebulletin/news/press-releases/2000-2009/2009/02/nparticle.2009-02-06.7874595975

NOTE TO NEWSDESK:

Rodrigo Quian Quiroga – Short Biography

Rodrigo Quian Quiroga graduated in Physics at the University of Buenos Aires, Argentina, in 1993. After 2 years working at the Department of Physiology in the Institute for Neurological Investigations – FLENI, Argentina, and one further year at the Department of Epilepsy of the same institute, he moved to Germany and obtained his PhD in applied mathematics at the University of Luebeck in 1998. He was a post-doctoral fellow at the Research Center Juelich, Germany, from 1998 to 2001 and from 2001 to 2004 he was a Sloan fellow at the California Institute of Technology, USA. He was appointed as a Lecturer in Bioengineering at the Department of Engineering of the University of Leicester in 2004, was promoted to Reader in 2006 and to a personal chair in 2008.

Dr. Quian Quiroga main research focus is on Neuroscience and the analysis of electrophysiological data. This research involves the use and development of advanced methods of signal processing. In particular, he developed an automatic method for processing the neural data that is currently used by several neurophysiology laboratories. The use of this method allowed the finding of a new type of ‘abstract’ (e.g. Jennifer Aniston) neurons in the human brain that was published in Nature, obtained the first prize at an international meeting in 2005 in Madrid and received world-wide media attention, including articles in the New York Times, Scientific American, Daily Mail, New Scientist, The Independent, etc. It has also been selected as one of the top 100 scientific stories of 2005 by Discover Magazine. In 2008, his follow-up work in this line of research was selected as one of the “Breaking news in Neuroscience” by the european Federation of Neuroscience Societies (fENS).

Dr. Quian Quiroga is a member of the editorial board of 3 international journals. He acts as reviewer for several international journals in the fields of Applied Mathematics, Physics, Signal Analysis, Clinical Neurophysiology and Neuroscience. He has given more than 30 invited lectures in the last 3 years, had published more than 50 refereed journal papers and currently holds 2 EPSRC grants, 1 MRC grant and 1 grant from the Royal Society. He is the head of the Bioengineering Research Group, at the Department of Engineering of the University of Leicester.

Contact:

Rodrigo Quian Quiroga

Department of Engineering, University of Leicester, LE1 7RH Leicester, United Kingdom

email rqqg1@le.ac.uk

www.le.ac.uk/neuroengineering

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