My thesis work in Ed Callaway’s lab at the Salk Institute focuses on characterizing the nature and organization of electrochemical connections between neurons—synapses—in the area of the brain underlying vision (sometimes referred to as the primary visual cortex or V1). These synaptic connections form the fundamental basis of information transmission in the brain, and enable sensory information to be transformed into a coherent representation of the world around us. In particular, the synapses between neurons in V1 translate the light that hits our retinas into electrical signals that travel to our brain, which ultimately gives rise to our perception of the world: whatever it is that we’re looking at at any given moment.

To investigate patterns in these connections between neurons, I use a technique called patch clamp recording. I use tiny glass electrodes to record electrical signals from individual cells in living brain tissue. By comparing signals recorded simultaneously from multiple cells, I am able to determine whether or not those particular cells are connected to each other or part of the same circuit. By taking into account other characteristics of each cell, such as what they look like, their precise location, the genes they express, and the types of visual stimuli they respond to, I’m able to get a better picture of how these cellular connections are organized. Understanding the nature of this organization is important for our understanding of how sensory information from the world around us is represented in our brains as electrochemical signals traveling between connected cells.

In summary, the incredible complexity of cell-to-cell connections in the brain forms the basis of how we see the world. My work explores the nature of these connections in greater detail in an effort to gain a better understanding of how neurons with specific characteristics connect with each other. This will help to pave the way for the development of novel theories of how the brain processes sensory information and allows us to make sense of the world around us.