BME 462: Sensory Acquisition

Quarter Offered

Spring : TBA ; Hartmann


Technically, there are no prerequisites for this course. In practice, however, if you do not know how to program in Matlab, it will be difficult for you to stay up to speed. If you have not taken an introductory neuroscience course (e.g., BME 301 or 401, NUIN 302 or 401), please see me.


What It's About

Sensing is not a passive process. Animals actively construct a perception of the world around them by moving their sensors through the environment. Each species' brain has evolved to interpret data from a particular set of sensors, and sensors and actuators (muscles) have in turn evolved so as to provide the brain with the data most useful for evolutionary survival. Perception is thus based on interactions between the animal's body, its brain, and the environment.

Active sensing is a characteristic of all sensory modalities, but this class will focus on somatosensation, particularly on touch and proprioception. The class will consider mammalian sensory pathways, with comparisons to model systems in neuroethology as appropriate.


To study how an animal gathers sensory data requires three steps. We will read papers, have discussions, and do class projects based around all three steps:

  1. Quantify the morphology and material properties of the sensors
  2. Characterize how the sensors move and interact with the environment. This is achieved by iterating between high-speed video and simulations of movement
  3. Characterize how neurons encode and process the sensory data acquired

By the end of this class you will be able to:

  • Schematize the sensory pathways that carry information from the human hand and from rat vibrissae through the nervous system
  • Discuss the importance of parallel pathways and feedback in sensory processing
  • Identify important interactions between parallel pathways in the vibrissal system
  • Provide examples of how sensor morphology influences the acquisition of sensory data
  • Compare and contrast primary sensory pathways across four sensory modalities (vision, audition, somatosensation, olfaction)
  • Schematize how to record and amplify neural signals
  • Describe the process of spike sorting. Distinguish between well-sorted and poorly-sorted spikes
  • Explain what is meant by field potentials, multiunit activity, single unit activity. Describe and implement techniques to analyze relationships between these types of signals
  • Perform fits to quantify the morphology of a sensory structure
  • Describe some techniques to analyze large datasets of sensory signals