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Past Winner
2006 NSERC Doctoral Prize

Brent Doiron


University of Ottawa

Brent Doiron
Brent Doiron

When we stop at a red light, recognize our name in a crowded room, or pull our hand away from a hot stove, that's an example of the brain's behavioural response to relevant stimuli. Dr. Brent Doiron is among the neuroscientists endeavouring to uncover the mechanisms responsible for such stimulus-induced behaviours. His groundbreaking research conducted at the University of Ottawa as a doctoral student in physics – developing mathematical models of feedback connections in the nervous system – holds the promise of advancing treatment for a variety of neurodegenerative diseases.

"A theory of neural feedback could be useful in the proper design of a neural prosthesis to cure sensory or motor malfunction. However, uncovering brain mechanics, where feedback is abundant, is a fundamental science question whose solutions will create unpredictable applications in the near future," says Dr. Doiron.  

The Winnipeg native who grew up in Russell, near Ottawa, studies the mechanics of perception in the brain. In other words, "understanding how networks of neurons represent the environments that our senses observe." The translation from light hitting the retina or sound waves hitting the eardrum into activity in the brain is often labelled the "neural code."  

Dr. Doiron, winner of a 2006 NSERC Doctoral Prize – one of Canada's premier graduate student awards – says the difficulty in unravelling this code comes from the fact that neurons are "complicated cells that interact in complicated, and often unknown, ways."  

In his research at the University of Ottawa, supervised by Dr. André Longtin and Dr. Leonard Maler, he created and explored mathematical models that replicate brain activity measured by neuroscientists. Comparing model predictions with experimental observations identifies which aspects of biological complexity are most important for a specific perceptual behaviour.  

"Mathematics can distil brain mechanics to their essence, helping us describe neural function in its simplest form," he explains. The challenge of brain research, therefore, is that it requires the combined efforts of neuroscientists, psychologists, and doctors, as well as physicists and mathematicians working together. It's a huge intellectual enterprise in which Dr. Doiron continues his investigations, now as a postdoctoral research fellow at New York University.