Michael Weliky, assistant professor of brain and cognitive sciences at the University of Rochester, has joined a select group of young scientists who have won the McKnight Foundation Scholar Award. This three-year award, worth $150,000, will help support Weliky's research in brain development and visual perception. In addition, a four-year grant of $800,000 from the National Institutes of Health provides further funding for his work investigating how the brain processes visual information. The combined funding will help Weliky outfit his laboratory and train graduate students and postdoctoral fellows.
Weliky's interest in how the brain interprets objects evolved from his early careers as an architect, computer graphic artist and software developer. He recognized a correlation between the software he wrote to produce computer-aided renderings, or digital representations of images, and the brain's system for interpreting visual scenes. His observation led him to earn his doctorate in neuroscience in 1992 from the University of California at Berkeley, where he had previously received his bachelor's degree in architecture.
To understand the brain, Weliky looks at the way individual neurons respond to and interact with stimuli, and how patterns of brain activity change during early development. His team has found that rhythmic bursts of neural activity sweep through the developing brain. These bursts are highly organized and appear to contain information for building and refining neural circuitry before cells have been exposed to any outside stimuli.
Weliky specializes in studying how cells are organized in the visual cortex, the part of the brain that processes incoming data. Cells in this brain region are organized into clusters that determine how objects are represented in our perception and cognition. Significant advances in computer technology enable him to record and track neural activity as nerve cells fire electrical impulses. Now Weliky is preparing to measure thousands of cells simultaneously to study concentrated patterns of brain activity. A computer program he has written will look at what the brain does as it constructs a scene cell by cell and interprets that information for our mind.
"Each cell in the visual cortex responds to a very small region or patch of the world," says Weliky, who joined the University last year following a postdoctoral fellowship at Duke University. "Our visual experience is built up from many thousands of these small fragmentary patches. Studying how large numbers of cells interact and work together tells us something about this process. Ultimately, we want to understand how neural circuits are built and constructed, and their underlying behavior regarding visual perception," Weliky says.