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A WVU biology professor asks: How do electric fish process signal patterns?

Research on fish may lead to breakthroughs in neuroscience and how sensory information is processed.

South African fish called gymnotiformes are capable of producing electric fields for navigation and communication similar to the way bats use ultrasonic calls.

Gary Marsat, a West Virginia University assistant professor of biology is working to understand how the gymnotiformes’ brain is optimized for the small variations in the way they communicate using signal patterns. The data from this research can be applied to human sensory processing research.

Gymnotiformes have been historically relevant to neuroscience because the electrical behavior continues when the fish isn’t moving.

“[The fish] provide a very strong foundation to study and understand details that are not possible to study in other species,” Marsat said.

Animals must be still while taking recordings of the brain, but once the animal stops moving there is no behavior to connect to activity in the brain. Since gymnotiformes’ electrosensory system continues electrical behavior during stabilization, the fish is ideally suited to help researchers understand how sensory information is processed.

Understanding the relationship between sensory stimuli and brain activity will help create better prosthetics for people who have amputations or were born without arms, hands or legs. Researchers are working on creating prosthetics that allow the wearer to have more precise motor functions and be able to feel what they are touching, said Marsat.

Creating better prosthetics requires understanding how neural code works so sensory devices can “talk” to the nervous system, Marsat said.

Marsat’s lab uses gymnotiformes in research on sensory processing, systems neuroscience, computational neuroscience and neuroethology, but this method is not new to researchers.

The project is funded by a $610,000 grant from the National Science Foundation Directorate for Biological Sciences.

Marsat is collaborating with G. Troy Smith, associate professor of biology at Indiana University, on both gymnotiforme research and the development of a summer program for experienced high school teachers and students in the WVU College of Education and Human Services. Participants will have the opportunity to visit Morgantown and conduct research or develop curriculum in University labs.

“We’re hoping to have experienced teachers from Indiana work with student teachers at WVU,” Marsat said. “They’ll share lecture materials and experiences with doing research in labs. The electric fish is sort of a cool model, so it’s a good topic for getting kids interested.”