The complexity of the mammalian brain challenges our ability to explain it. My group applies methods from mathematics and theoretical physics to understand the brain. We are generating novel ideas about neural computation and brain development, including how neurons process information, how brain networks assemble during development, and how brain architecture evolved to facilitate its function.
Alexei Koulakov and colleagues are trying to determine the mathematical rules by which the brain assembles itself, with particular focus on the formation of sensory circuits such as those involved in visual perception and olfaction. The visual system of the mouse was chosen for study in part because its components, in neuroanatomical terms, are well understood. What is not known is how projections are generated that lead from the eye through the thalamus and into the visual cortex, how an individual’s experience influences the configuration of the network, and what parameters for the process are set by genetic factors. Even less is known about the assembly of the neural net within the mouse olfactory system, which, in the end, enables the individual to distinguish one smell from another with astonishing specificity and to remember such distinctions over time. These are among the challenges that engage Koulakov and his team.