Dr. Schummers' research group studies the functional organization of the cortex – the convoluted outer "shell" of the brain, which is responsible for many brain functions, including sensory perception, motor control and higher cognitive functions. The cortex is the brain structure that is most expanded in humans, and is responsible for many of the most complex human behaviors, including language and cognition.
By studying an experimentally tractable cortical function – visual processing – Dr. Schummers hopes to uncover the general principles by which the cortex functions. A major research focus will be to determine the involvement of astrocytes, the major non-neuronal cell group in the brain, in cortical function. Dr. Schummers plans to test the hypothesis that astrocytes are intimately involved in information processing in the cortex. The group uses cutting-edge high-resolution two-photon imaging, electrophysiological recording, as well as methods to label specific cell types, to study cellular and sub-cellular activity in the intact brain.
The high-resolution functional map of cortical circuits that will emerge from this research program will lay the foundation for a number of medical advances. Firstly, gaining a basic understanding of visual cortex is a pre-requisite for interventions, such as visual prostheses, for those suffering from retinal blindness. Secondly, elucidating the function of normal cortical circuits will enhance diagnostic analysis and suggest potential treatment strategies for disorders with a cortical basis, ranging broadly from epilepsy to Alzheimer's to neurodevelopmental disorders such as autism spectrum disorders.