Salk Institute for Biological Studies

Faculty

Tatyana  Sharpee

Tatyana Sharpee

Associate Professor
Computational Neurobiology Laboratory

Education

Research

Our group works on theoretical principles of how the brain processes information. We are interested in how sensory processing in the brain is shaped by the animal's need to create parsimonious representations of events in the outside world. Our approaches are often derived from methods in statistical physics, mathematics, and information theory.

We also work on methods for analyzing neural data, including methods for analyzing neural responses to natural stimuli, such as a short video clip or sound recording during a stroll on a forest trail. In the past, scientists had to rely on simplified objects on a computer screen or random stimuli to garner information on how the brain processes visual information. Natural stimuli are often much better for probing neural responses than random noise stimuli. Using approaches designed to work with natural stimuli, we hope to achieve a more complete picture of how the brain processes information.

"Neurobiologists are on a perennial quest to understand how the brain codes stimuli in the environment. In the past, scientists had to rely on simplified objects on a computer screen. I try to take it a step further and analyze how brain cells respond to stimuli typical of our natural environment."

Sharpee's lab works on theoretical principles of how the brain processes information and explores how sensory processing in the brain is shaped by our need to create representations of events in the outside world. Researchers used to rely on simplified objects on a computer screen or random stimuli to garner information on how the brain processes visual information. But our brains are meant to operate in a remarkably complex and fast-changing world, so these methods offered limited insight into the brain's workings. In contrast, natural stimuli, such as a short video clip or sound recorded during a stroll on a forest trail, are often much better for probing neural responses. This is particularly true when studying intermediate and high-level neurons in the brain that translate sensory stimuli from the environment into meaningful information. These neurons rarely respond to simple patterns that are devoid of recognizable real-world objects, but they will respond to the rich ensemble of object combinations found in our environment.

Sharpee and her colleagues are developing methods to identify which features of natural stimuli cause a response in high-level neurons and how the brain prioritizes and makes sense of this information. A key obstacle to understanding how our brain functions is that neurons respond in highly nonlinear ways to complex stimuli, meaning that signals are amplified and suppressed in unexpected ways. As a result, stimulus-response relationships are extremely difficult to discern.

To address this, Sharpee's team has worked out rigorous statistical methods for modeling how visual and auditory stimuli are coded and decoded through nonlinear transformations in different brain centers. These studies are beginning to uncover the common principles of hierarchical information processing in the brain and will help us better understand how neurological disorders and injuries interrupt these crucial processes. Knowing how information moves through our sensory systems may offer new strategies for helping people with impairments, such as improving the performance of retinal implants that could help restore vision in the blind.

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Selected Publications

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