Sensory organs – fingers, eyes, whiskers – move continuously to sample the surroundings. How does the brain keep track of these movements, creating a stable image of the external world? Research by Chunxiu Yu, a student working in the lab of Prof. Ehud Ahissar in the Weizmann Institute's Neurobiology Department, is shedding new light on this long-debated question.
Together with her colleagues in Ahissar's research team, Chunxiu Yu studies how rats use their whiskers to explore. Whisker hairs are highly developed sensory organs that the rat whisks rapidly back and forth. This motion enables the rat to experience objects in three dimensions, and this information is transferred to the brain, which creates a "whole" picture of the shape and location of the object.
"I first became interested in science when I took a course in biology and found myself attracted by the amazing biological phenomena and questions."
Team members had previously found that information about sensor movement is encoded in the follicle near the base of each whisker. Chunxiu Yu recently presented novel insights into the ways the brain processes this information. She showed that sensory signals are kept separate until they reach the thalamus – one of the brain's central gateways. From the thalamus, some copies of these signals are used to control whisker motion while other copies seem to help map the location of objects. Chunxiu Yu is now exploring the mechanism of this mapping.
Chunxiu Yu came to the Weizmann Institute with her husband, a research student in the lab of Prof. Varda Rotter. It was a chance meeting with Ahissar that led her into the research she is doing today.
"I chose to study at the Weizmann Graduate School because the Weizmann Institute offers an excellent scientific environment and also has an outstanding reputation in the world."
Chunxiu Yu works in the lab of Prof. Ehud Ahissar, the incumbent of the Helen Diller Family Professorial Chair in Neurobiology.