An image of the neural circuits of a genetically identified olfactory bulb glomerulus and an electron micrograph with glomeruli outlined in orange and yellow.

Andreas Schaefer : Neurophysiology of behaviour laboratory

We are investigating how individual nerve cells in the brain work together to create complex thoughts and actions.

The human brain is probably the most complex object in the universe. It’s packed with billions of nerve cells that are constantly communicating, sending and receiving electrical signals that result in thoughts, actions and memories.

Figuring out how such complex behaviours arise from the combined actions of individual nerve cells is the greatest challenge in neuroscience. To make things simpler, we are studying one specific part of the brain known as the olfactory bulb, which is responsible for smelling. Nerve cells in the olfactory bulb receive signals from the nose, triggered by smelly chemicals, and process this information to create a response – for example, moving towards delicious-smelling food, moving away from unpleasant rotting odours, or being attracted to the scent of a potential mate.

Using microscopic electrodes, we have developed precision techniques for measuring the activity in individual nerve cells in the olfactory bulb in mice, so we can see how they respond to different triggers.

Our method is allowing us to construct ‘wiring diagrams’ for this part of the brain, showing how each cell connects and communicates with its neighbours to generate a response. We are also using genetic engineering techniques and chemicals to modify the genes and molecules inside olfactory nerve cells, to see how this affects their activity.

This research is uncovering the hidden secrets of the brain, revealing how nerve cells work together to create complex behavioural responses and shedding light on what happens when they don’t function as they should.