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- Professor of Behavioural Neuroscience
- Experimental Psychology
- Div of Psychology & Language Sciences
- Faculty of Brain Sciences
I originally trained as a doctor, in my native New Zealand. During my medical training I became very interested in the brain and how it works, and in particular, how it could form mysterious entities such as thoughts, beliefs and consciousness using only neurons. After qualifying I undertook an MSc with Cliff Abraham, at Otago University in Dunedin, NZ, where I studied a physiological phenomenon known as LTP, thought to be a memory mechanism. After that I was hooked on research and so I moved across the planet from Dunedin to Edinburgh to study for my PhD with Richard Morris, looking at how LTP in rats relates to their navigation behaviour. I then spent my postdoc years with John O’Keefe at University College London, learning to study spatially sensitive neurons at the single-cell level, after which I took up a lectureship across the road in the Division of Psychology, where I have been ever since and where I continue to study how neural encoding is related to navigation behaviour. Bringing behavioural and physiological science together has always been a big goal of mine, in both teaching and research, and so in 2006 I founded the “Institute of Behavioural Neuroscience,” a laboratory comprising several animal researchers who use physiological methods to study cognition. Between 2010 and 2013 I was head of the Research Department of Cognitive, Perceptual and Brain Sciences, after which I stepped down to concentrate more fully on research, recently securing a Wellcome Investigator Award to conduct a five-year study of how the spatially sensitive neurons encode complex spaces. In addition to research I am also co-director, with my husband Jim Donnett, of an electrophysiology instrumentation company called Axona Ltd, which makes recording systems to allow the study of single neurons in awake and freely behaving animals. We have three daughters, which has helped foster an active interest in promoting the career development of women, especially in science.
I am interested in the fine-grained architecture of cognition - in other words, how is information represented in the brain? A particularly interesting forum for exploring this question is spatial cognition, because work has revealed the existence of a map-like representation of space in the brain that can be used for self-localisation and navigation. This cognitive map seems to reside in a network of neural structures including the hippocampus and entorhinal cortex. The big questions concerning the cognitive map are (1) How is it constructed, and (2) What is it for?
My work involves recording single neurons from these structures in freely moving and exploring rats, to determine how the cells respond to spatial information. The hippocampal neurons (place cells) encode location in a complex, multidimensional space, and some entorhinal neurons (grid cells) have the recently discovered property that they mark out distances across the environment, forming a grid-like array of activity that can presumably be used by other brain structures in spatial computations. I am currently studying these neurons in order to gain insights into how animals construct a map of complex space that can be used for navigation, and which also seems to be important for forming "autobiographical" memory for life events.
First-year module on basic neuroscience in "Concepts and methods in Psychology"
Second-year course "Brain and Behaviour"
Third-year course "Topics in Neurobiology"
I also teach on various MSc courses
|01-OCT-2010 – 30-SEP-2015||Head of Research Department||Cognitive, Perceptual and Brain Sciences||UCL, United Kingdom|
|1993||PhD||Doctor of Philosophy||University of Edinburgh|
|1989||MSc||Master of Science||University of Otago|
|1985||MB.ChB||Bachelor of Medicine, Bachelor of Surgery||University of Otago|