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UCalgary Hippocampus research spurred by New Frontiers of Researchers funding

By Mah Noor, September 22 2020 —

Neuroscience has come a long way from its rudimentary origins in cutting out parts of the brain as treatment for various illnesses and afflictions.

Today, University of Calgary’s own Dr. Wilten Nicola is working with Dr. David Dupret at the University of Oxford to utilize in silico and in vivo techniques to better understand the hippocampus and its function. Theirs is one of three UCalgary projects to receive the New Frontiers of Researchers funding, a fund that was started by the Government of Canada to spur innovation and encourage collaboration between different fields.

Nicola received the grant for a model he is trying to construct to explain how the hippocampus is able to form memories so rapidly. One theory that they are working off of is that there is a mechanism in neurobiology that lets us learn very fast. This theory states that memories are formed quickly in the hippocampus but then are moved out to other brain regions, specifically the cortex, to be consolidated. This system is extremely useful since it allows humans to learn very quickly and with just a single trial; it explains why you can recognize someone’s face even if you have only met or even just seen them once. 

In this project, Nicola is constructing networks of spiking neurons to try and model what the hippocampus does via simulations, or in silico. These networks are able to perform tasks that humans and animals can do through simulated neurons, such as store and replay movie scenes in the synaptic connections. Not only this, but the model that Nicola is constructing involves training the network to reproduce a lot of the dynamics that are seen in the hippocampus, but in a way that the network could then be functionally used to store new information that it is going to experience. The simulations represent the hypothesis presented by their model, and they are testing their ideas by conducting experiments in animals, in vivo.. Nicola’s partner in this project, Dupret, is carrying out this part of the project by implanting electrodes in freely behaving mice and rats to observe the sequences of neural spikes. This is done to see if their model accurately predicts the sequences that are then observed. The results of these experiments will either validate or falsify their original model, and the results can then be used to refine and amend it.

One of the applications of creating a model like this is that it can then be used to reflect malfunctions and disorders that may emerge during memory formation. Nicola explains, “We’re trying to figure out, if we have this computer simulation of the hippocampus, how can we break it in different ways that are indicative of a particular disease happening and are these spikes that we see in this broken computer model similar to the spikes that we see in the biological animals with the disease state.” 

The hippocampus has been found to play a large role in these disorders as one of the most epileptic regions and also one of the first regions to suffer severe functional losses in Alzheimer’s patients. By better understanding the hippocampus and how it may function these disorders will also be better understood by association. 

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