Fathima Mukthar Iqbal (PhD Student)

Fathima’s interest lies in studying the neural circuits underlying the plethora of behaviours displayed by animals. She is especially fascinated by how different complex behaviours are adapted to changes in the environment. 

The fact that the basic units of the brain are separate, discrete cells was still debatable in the late nineteenth century, although vast advances had already been made in understanding many other physiological aspects of our body. What makes the brain so difficult to decipher is its anatomical and functional complexity. One approach to understanding the functional principles of the organ that determines who we are and how we perceive and interact with the world is to study numerically simpler brains, which are nonetheless capable of producing and controlling complex behaviours.

Currently, Fathima is studying the descending pathways that convey information about the environment from sensory organs and central brain circuits to lower motor centers in flies, with a focus on how these descending pathways control and execute locomotion. At present, she is building different setups and standardizing protocols that will allow her to optogenetically manipulate various descending neurons to study more closely the flexible control of locomotion in flies and she is in absolute awe of it. Once our protocols and setups are established, Fathima’s experiments will help us develop a better understanding of how descending pathways modify and direct the ongoing behaviour.

Fathima hails from the southern part of India. She holds a bachelor’s degree in Botany and Biotechnology from Mahatma Gandhi University, Kerala and a master’s degree in Biotechnology from the Cochin University of Science and Technology. As part of her master’s thesis, she worked on developing a new method to probe exclusively the post-ingestive nutrient sensing in flies using liposomes with Dr Gaurav Das, NCCS, Pune and Dr Sneha Bajpe, Symbiosis International, Pune. She continued the work at the NCCS with the same group before moving to Würzburg to embark on her PhD project.

P.S: Fathima considers reading literary fiction as her sport and was delighted to find out about the big library on the campus in Würzburg. Recently, she has also re-invented her interest in gaming.

Federico Milani (PhD Student)

One of the most complicated and intriguing objects known to humanity can be found right inside our own head: the human brain. Despite the fact that humans have been fascinated with their brain for centuries, even simple nervous systems, like those of a worm or a fly, remain beyond our grasp. In the last decades, a huge effort has been made to advance our knowledge about the nervous system, but we are still a long way from being able to claim that we ‘understand’ the brain. Studying the brain remains challenging because the experiments we can carry out with the available techniques focus either on single neurons with a high level of precision, or on larger networks and brain areas at the price of losing information about sub-threshold neuronal dynamics. Unfortunately, most of the functions of the nervous system arise from global network activity, but we cannot record all the neurons with high precision at the same time. In this situation, computational models come to our aid, allowing us to develop an insight into the properties of neural networks at a global level, which are difficult or impossible to measure with empirical approaches. These data can then be exploited to ­design better experiments and to create new, improved hypotheses about network functions.

Modulatory neurons are key to understanding complex neural networks since they enable flexible, adaptive processing of external sensory cues and internal state signals. Since the complexity of these systems is quite high, Federico’s goal is to develop a computational model to understand how the ensemble of neuromodulators acts together to mediate flexible sensorimotor processing and adjust the metabolism of flies to ever-changing external and internal demands. To this end, Feffo is combining patch-clamp recordings from modulatory neurons and sensorimotor pathways with Hodgkin-Huxley type modeling approaches. 

Federico holds a Bachelor’s degree in Natural Sciences and a Master’s degree in Neurobiology from La Sapienza-University of Rome, Italy. He also attended a one-year master course at the Advanced School in Artificial Intelligence (AS-AI) held by the Institute of Cognitive Sciences and Technologies, National Research Council (CNR-ISTC) of Rome. Thus, he acquired the necessary skills to complete his MSc thesis in computational neuroscience under the supervision of Dr. Gianluca Baldassarre in the same institute (CNR-ISTC).