News / Ottawa

Ottawa researchers are spying on electric fish to understand human brains

Award-winning project has sparked some imaginations at the National Science and Engineering Research Council.

Andr? Longtin (left) and Leonard Maler (right) at work in their lab at the University of Ottawa. The researchers have won an award for their work on the brain using electric fish.

Contributed/NSERC

Andr? Longtin (left) and Leonard Maler (right) at work in their lab at the University of Ottawa. The researchers have won an award for their work on the brain using electric fish.

Did the electric fish headline get your attention? Researchers in Ottawa are trying to figure out how that happened inside your brain. 

André Longtin is a physicist and co-researcher Leonard Maler is a neurologist at the University of Ottawa. Together they’re exploring how signals travel in the brain with some electrifying helpers.

“Our brains are constantly being bombarded by information, and we don’t have the ability to pay attention to all of it at the same time,” said Longtin, who recently accepted a national science award with Maler.

“Somehow, there’s a queuing process going on in our brain that says, ‘OK, pay attention to this and now switch over to that, then to that,'" he said. "We do not know how this switching occurs.” 

That big question is critical to understanding conditions like Attention Deficit Disorder, learning or memory loss.

If you compare the human brain to a computer, then the research Maler and Longtin are doing examines both the hardware (brain cells and neurons) and the software (how the brain is programmed to work).

In humans attention is subjective, but the sightless electric fish is a creature whose attention can be recorded based on the pulses of electricity it releases.

Part of Longtin and Maler’s research is analyzing the seconds-long gap between making a decision and being aware you’ve made a decision.

“Our brain is very good at this stuff because we need to make sense of the world,” said Longtin. “This study shows that attention happens before we act, which is a new finding. It’s about free will and our ability to act on our environment and to be aware.”

Their work has been awarded the Brockhouse Canada Prize, a national award handed out once a year by the National Science and Engineering Research Council.

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