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From electric fish to electronic gadgets

WVU biologist awarded prestigious NSF CAREER Award

New neuroscience research from West Virginia University has the potential to improve technologies used by the human body’s five senses, ranging from hearing aids to cameras. 

Gary Marsat

Gary Marsat, an assistant professor of neuroscience in the Department of Biology, has received the National Science Foundation’s prestigious CAREER Award to study sensory systems, which process all the signals from the eyes, ears, mouth, nose and skin and delivers that information to the brain. 

“This could be the next 20 years of my research. This is not a five-year project and then I move on to something else, and the NSF recognized that,” Marsat said. “I am committed to this long-term. This award is setting me up for a career.”  

Whether it’s sight, sound or touch, determining where sensory inputs come from is difficult, particularly when signals are faint or moving. Neuroscientists understand how the sensory system determines the location or source of inputs when they are still or simple, and Marsat is taking the next step, exploring how the senses do that in more complex conditions, such as when movement occurs.

Marsat and his research team are using a unique organism to answer these questions. 

Gary Marsat looks on as student uses a microscope

They are studying the movements and interactions of weakly electric fish, which have electric receptors all over their skin. The fish detect and locate each other based on the electric signals they emit. Their localization process is similar to human sight and hearing in many ways. In humans, the visual system creates a map, and the auditory system compares inputs at the two ears to determine where a sound originated. These fish rely on both of these methods to locate electric signals.

“As the nocturnal fish chase each other in the dark, their entire experience is based on this electric signal – to navigate, to locate each other, to communicate with each other,” Marsat said. “We want to understand how exactly they do this. Our study will look at their experiences from several angles: describing the signals and behaviors, understanding the accuracy of the sensory system and detailing the mechanisms supporting this task.” 

Gary Marsat checks on weakly electric fish

Long-term, this research could make technologies used by the human sensory system more efficient.

“In the human auditory system, for example, how can you isolate that one voice when you are having a conversation at a party?” Marsat said. “This could help people who have hearing loss.”

There are also applications for the human visual system, including object-background separation.

“How can a camera or a computer separate an object from the background? This is the same process as how we separate signals that come from different sources,” Marsat said. “It’s a generic mechanism that we use every time we have a sensory signal.”