The ability to detect the earth's magnetic field and use this information for orientation is widespread among animals. Recent evidence supports a chemical, light-dependent, radical-pair magnetoreception mechanism in night-time migratory songbirds. The goal of the proposed work is to test the hypothesis that Cluster-N, a sub-region of the avian visual Wulst analogous to the mammalian visual cortex, processes light-mediated magnetic compass information, and to explore the magnetic map of space encoded in the spiking patterns of Cluster-N neurons. Better understanding of a wider range of sensory processing beyond the "textbook" five senses provides a venue for broad educational impacts that cut across multiple academic levels. The research objectives of the project will provide interdisciplinary training to two graduate students at the interface of physics, behavioral and neuro-biology. One of the PIs is a Director of the UCSD Neurosciences Graduate Program. which oversees an established and successful K-12 education outreach program, with the broad goal of sharing knowledge of the brain and neuroscience research with San Diego students and community members. Graduate students and PIs will work directly with high school students and teachers from San Diego Unified and other nearby school districts to develop interactive science teaching modules provided (and presented) to each school and lead a Teacher Training Program. The program currently offers four neuroscience modules, that can be led by either a UCSD researcher or high school teacher that has been trained by the group. Current modules introduce Comparative Neuroanatomy, Brain Dissection, Electrophysiology, and Histology. The PIs are currently creating a fifth module built around sensory systems, and plan to include magneto-reception in this new module.
Converging evidence supports the involvement of an avian forebrain visual area, cluster-N, in processing information for the light-dependent magnetic compass that night-migratory songbirds use to navigate. The electrophysiological responses of Cluster-N neurons to well-controlled magnetic field and visual stimuli have not been examined, leaving a deep gap in our understanding of the biology of this novel sensory system. To fill this gap, the PIs exploit the interdisciplinary expertise of two research groups: the Ritz lab, focused on the biophysics of cryptochrome (Cry) photo-magnetoreception, and the Gentner lab, focused on the sensory electrophysiology of Cluster-N neurons. Building on a modelling framework provided by the Ritz group, the Gentner group will test explicit predictions of the Cry-hypothesis for electrophysiological light-mediated magnetic responses of Cluster-N neurons.
This award reflects NSF's statutory mission and has been deemed worthy of support through evaluation using the Foundation's intellectual merit and broader impacts review criteria.