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NSERC Prizes 2017: André Longtin and Leonard Maler

Department of Physics, Department of Cellular and Molecular Medicine
University of Ottawa


Video Name

NSERC Prizes 2017: André Longtin and Leonard Maler


NSERC Communications



Release Date

February 7, 2017


André Longtin and Leonard Maler have combined their expertise in physics, mathematics and neurobiology to uncover the neural code that underlies the operation of the brain. The University of Ottawa researchers use electric fish to trace the journey of signals as they move through the entire sensory process, observing the hidden traits of brain activity in moments of focus. Their research expands our understanding of neuroscience and benefits the development of artificial intelligence and treatments for neurological disorders. Dr. Longtin and Dr. Maler won NSERC's Brockhouse Canada Prize for Interdisciplinary Research in Science and Engineering in 2017.

Leonard Maler

You could be talking to someone at a party and paying attention to them, some music comes on, and now the part of the brain that’s involved in processing speech turns off, the part of the brain that’s involved in processing music turns on. How that works is not understood.

André Longtin

Cracking that code in vision, audition, memory, attention is the quest for the neural code, and it’s one of the key questions in science these days.

Leonard Maler

How attention is allocated is a gigantic mystery. We try to understand the neural mechanisms — how the brain actually remembers, how the brain actually perceives.

André Longtin

You can gain a lot by studying simple animals.

Leonard Maler

Now, why electric fish? It’s simple: if it’s interested in something, it’s paying attention, it will emit electric pulses. That made it a very nice system for studying the core mechanisms of attention.

André Longtin

When we’re focusing on something, we devote the resources of our brain to the task at hand. So we focus on the sensory inputs relevant to that task, and we try to quiet down the other ones.

Leonard Maler

We also discovered that the responses of the brain depended on the animal’s learning. If it’s highly practiced, minimal attention. And somehow our brains know when it’s highly practiced and can pretty much attend to something else.

André Longtin

We know there are problems with attention deficits and memory deficits, and we know attention is required for learning. So if we’re able to elucidate some aspect of this attention switching, then maybe we can figure out how it’s dysfunctional and repair it.

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