The ETIC project

A major challenge in neuroscience is to understand how neurons encode information. Optogenetics techniques provide the opportunity of controlling neuronal activity with high temporal and spatial resolution and thus testing causally the role of a specific encoding strategy. However, to enable us to crack the neural code, these optical approaches need to be complemented by theoretical developments that:
  1. Identify the response variables of a neural population that carry the most information about sensory stimuli and thus allows to build a hypothesis about the neural code it uses.
  2. Create stimulation protocols specifically designed to rigorously test the hypothesis.
  3. Apply appropriate statistical analyses that determine whether different information-carrying components of neural population activity are transmitted through downstream networks.

My project has as its main goal to develop a novel theoretical framework to address these issues and help understanding how the mammalian cortex encodes sensory information, using the mouse somatosensory cortex as an experimental model. In particular, I am devising computational techniques aimed at characterizing the encoding and transmission of information in layer IV and then in one of its main targets: layer II/III. Specifically, I use Non-Negative Matrix Factorization methods to characterize how large-scale populations of layer IV encode whisker information.

Further, I have developed a jitter based method to decompose the electrophysiological responses of layer II/III neurons into independently contributing temporal scales and establish which whisker-informative components of layer IV population activity are transmitted to the responses of layer 2/3 neurons.

The project is carried on in tight collaboration with Tommaso Fellin's laboratory in Genova, where the experiments are performed by Dr. Marco Brondi.