Nicholas Priebe

Neuroscience associate professor Nicholas Priebe and his team received a research grant to study how environments affect human senses.

Priebe, along with three other experts in the field of sensory biology, received a grant worth $1.05 million to study how sensory systems change as the environment changes.

“If you are inside in a normally lit room, your eyes have adjusted to that level of light,” Priebe said. “When you walk outside, you are immediately in a much brighter space. It takes your brain a moment to adjust to this suddenly brighter light. This is what they call adaptation.” 

These adaptations take place with all of our senses. Scientists tend to focus and find theoretical explanations for how adaptation occurs to only one sense. 

Priebe’s research is special because he is trying to use the same experimental approaches to test different ideas in all the senses, said Marc Airhart, communications coordinator for the College of Natural Sciences. 

“This will standardize and set a fundamental explanation that applies to all the senses”, Airhart said. 

The research is significant because these adaptations take place in the neocortex, the part of the brain that humans have developed the most, a fact that distinguishes humans from animals, according to Priebe. 

“The neat thing is that the circuitry in the neocortex is very similar across all the senses,” Priebe said. “So, our idea is there’s a common circuitry that processes all these different modalities. We want to understand these common rules.”

Once this is understood, researchers can understand why the human neocortex has developed more than other animals, Priebe said. 

The Human Frontier Science Program encourages international and interdisciplinary collaboration in life science research. 

Priebe specializes in vision, whereas some of his colleagues specialize in other senses. Of the other researchers working on the project, Israel Nelken is an expert on hearing at the Hebrew University in Israel; Ilan Lampl is an expert on touch at the Weizmann Institute of Science in Israel; and Adrienne Fairhall is a theorist at the University of Washington in Seattle.

“It is beneficial to see diverse perspectives, and this grant provides the mechanism to do that,” Priebe said. 

The research will lead to technological, conceptual and global innovation, according to neuroscience graduate student Benjamin Scholl.

“Technologically, UT provides us with tools that allow us to target specific parts of the brain, so we will be using genetically modified transgenic mice,” Scholl said. “Conceptually, he will develop a common principle that might be applied to all researchers worldwide.”