Profiles of Pioneers: Class of 20042009
Larry Abbott, Ph.D.
New York, NY
"There was a fairly long period in which we set out in many directions, some of which proved fruitless. This work would not have happened without the Pioneer Award.“
How do we perceive our world? Using our five senses to sample our surroundings is only the first step. What we do with that information involves thinking, memory and associations with other people, concepts and events.
After a 10-year career in theoretical particle physics, Dr. Larry Abbott switched his research focus to mathematical modeling and analysis of brain function. He began to study the electrical characteristics of single neurons in order to determine how neurons interact to produce functioning neural circuits.
Abbott’s research ideas represented a new frontier: exploring how perception arises not only from the information gathered by our senses, but also through the integration of internally generated activity representing memory, attention and context. He uses mathematical techniques and computer simulations to develop neural circuit models that can compactly represent external events and make predictions about them.
As a theoretical physicist interested in the biology and pathology of the brain, Abbott has helped to bring a new thrust of inquiry to neuroscience. Through his Pioneer Award-funded work, he has also explored the idea that the brain actively and dynamically balances inhibition and excitation. His results support the idea that in a balanced network–characteristic of healthy brain function–each neuron receives approximately equal amounts of excitatory and inhibitory input that normally cancel each other.
Abbott has created a mathematical model that can both spread and filter ("gate") electrical signals. He has discovered that his model displays behaviors that mimic the symptoms of disease, such as schizophrenia, when the balance between excitation and inhibition is upset.
With his new models, Abbott merges two areas of research: how external stimuli drive perception and how internal processing influences behavior. By enabling predictions, the models pave the way for future research on the science of decision-making and other aspects of human perception and behavior that are poorly understood.
Vogels TP, Abbott LF. Signal propagation and logic gating in networks of integrate-and-fire neurons. J Neurosci 2005;25:10786-95.
Abbott LF, Rohrkempter R. A simple growth model constructs critical avalanche networks.Prog Brain Res 2007;165:13-9.
Vogels TP, Abbott LF. Gating deficits in model networks: a path to schizophrenia? Pharmacopsychiatry 2007;40:S73-7.
Abbott LF. Theoretical neuroscience rising. Neuron 2008;60:489-95.
Vogels TP, Abbott LF. Gating multiple signals through detailed balance of excitation and inhibition in spiking networks. Nat Neurosci 2009;12:483-91.
Sussillo D, Abbott LF. Generating coherent patterns of activity from chaotic neural networks. Neuron 2009, in press.
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