Plexon Research Spotlight

Timothy Allen, Ph.D.

Assistant Professor, Florida International University


What type of neuroscience research do you do and what got you interested in this research? 

My lab researches the neurobiological basis of learning and memory. We answer basic questions about how memories are formed and represented at neurophysiological levels in freely-behaving rats and pigs. We focus on the hippocampus, medial prefrontal cortex, the nucleus reuniens of the thalamus–each of which contributes uniquely to a larger system that gives rise to learning and memory capacities. I became interested in learning and memory, in part, because my grandfather developed severe dementia. The loss in my grandfather’s ability to recognize and remember his own family members was particularly devastating to me. From my perspective, it seemed that having a shot at eliminating dementia in the future would require a dedication to research on how cognition and memory works in the brain. 

What challenges did you encounter along the way, and how did you overcome these challenges?

There are many challenges. Some challenges are technical, such as how to record neural activity in animals as they perform learning and memory task. Other challenges are analytical, such as how to interpret changing neural spiking patterns in relation to high-level cognitive variables which can only really be inferred from behavior. These types of challenges can and have been solved within teams of very talented scientists, and people in industry that provide efficient and advanced solutions, with whom I have been privileged to work. Other challenges are more intangible. For example, it is challenging to work in research generally. Research is mostly a thankless endeavor from day-to-day and fraught with far more failures than successes. The way I got through many disappointing failures was to return mentally to my original goal, i.e. to understand learning and memory at the biological level and help future persons like my grandfather. The only way toward that goal was and is to continue in the face of failure, and accumulate a few successes here and there. In the long run, those successes can be quite rewarding.

What new technique do you think will have the greatest impact on Neuroscience research and how do you plan to apply this to your research ?

I believe that massive-scale single-neuron recordings in freely-behaving animals will provide new insights into the learning and memory code. Most of the time we can record 10-100 neurons simultaneously. However, advances in recording numbers meaningfully comes from exponential growth. The next target for the field should be to record 1000 neurons, and then 10,000 neurons, etc. simultaneously and routinely. Additionally, I believe these recordings need to be performed during higher-level cognitive challenges. Both of these advances can be achieved to some degree in the rats. However, our lab is pushing toward a pig model. The pig size allows more recording sites with larger electrode arrays, and pigs easily perform high-level cognitive tasks on a touch screen. In fact, these tasks can be the same as those used in humans for the most part.

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