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Jeremy Niven

Dr Jeremy Niven

Dr Jeremy Niven

Research Fellow

Interests and expertise (Subject groups)

Grants awarded

Predicting environmental changes to reduce the energy cost of sensory coding

Scheme: University Research Fellowship

Organisation: University of Sussex

Dates: Oct 2014-Sep 2015

Value: £103,111.44

Summary: Most insects are small when compared to animals with a backbone, including humans, and have comparatively small brains with far fewer neurons. Brains determine the world animals perceive, how they move and what they can learn and remember. Do the small brains of insects restrict the behaviours they can produce? Working out the sorts of behaviours insects can produce is not without difficulties, you just can't ask them what they are capable of and instead scientists have to devise ways for them to tell us. Usually, we do this by observing insects performing particular tasks. Recently, we've started to ask whether there are tasks that can tell us more about what particular insect species can perceive, how they control their actions and how they make decisions . We’ve concentrated on one particular sort of behaviour – controlling limb movements with vision. Whether walking on rough ground or making a cup of tea, humans use vision to guide the movements of our limbs. In insects, little attention has been given to whether they can similarly control limb movements using vision. Controlling limb movements with vision is usually thought to be complicated because the position of objects in the world are encoded by the visual system but must be transformed into movements of the limb muscles – the kind of transformation that’s thought to require a big brain. Surprisingly, we’ve found that locusts are able to use vision to guide their forelimbs while they are walking. More surprisingly, we found one insect that can even reach for objects using vision. This strongly suggests that insect brains are capable of complex behaviours previously thought to be restricted to humans and other mammals. This opens up many new questions - how are the brains of insects able to perform such complicated tasks? We're currently working on this problem by reconstructing the brains of these insects.

The Role of Cell Size in the Evolution of the Insect Nervous System

Scheme: University Research Fellowship

Organisation: University of Sussex

Dates: Oct 2011-Sep 2014

Value: £318,522.58

Summary: Most insects are small when compared to animals with a backbone, including humans, and have comparatively small brains with far fewer neurons. Brains determine the world animals perceive, how they move and what they can learn and remember. Do the small brains of insects restrict the behaviours they can produce? Working out the sorts of behaviours insects can produce is not without difficulties, you just can't ask them what they are capable of and instead scientists have to devise ways for them to tell us. Usually, we do this by observing insects performing particular tasks. Recently, we've started to ask whether there are tasks that can tell us more about what particular insect species can perceive, how they control their actions and how they make decisions . We’ve concentrated on one particular sort of behaviour – controlling limb movements with vision. Whether walking on rough ground or making a cup of tea, humans use vision to guide the movements of our limbs. In insects, little attention has been given to whether they can similarly control limb movements using vision. Controlling limb movements with vision is usually thought to be complicated because the position of objects in the world are encoded by the visual system but must be transformed into movements of the limb muscles – the kind of transformation that’s thought to require a big brain. Surprisingly, we've found that locusts are able to use vision to guide their forelimbs while they are walking. More surprisingly, we found one insect that can even reach for objects using vision. This strongly suggests that insect brains are capable of complex behaviours previously thought to be restricted to humans and other mammals. This opens up many new questions - how are the brains of insects able to perform such complicated tasks? We're currently working on this problem by reconstructing the brains of these insects.

The role of cell size in the evolution of the insect nervous system

Scheme: University Research Fellowship

Organisation: University of Cambridge

Dates: Oct 2006-Sep 2011

Value: £440,810.14

Summary: Much of what we consider makes us unique in comparison to other species is determined by our large brains. Our behaviour and cognition are the product of our large brains. Indeed, our relatively large brains are thought to be key to our success. Thus, brain size is thought to be linked to behaviour and cognition. Although the relationship between brain size and body mass in mammal has been known for many years, we know far less about brain size in the very smallest animals. Our recent studies have shown that the very tiniest insects and spiders have relatively huge brains for their body mass. Indeed, tiny spiders have brains so large that they have expanded into the legs. In one species, there is even a pronounced bulge in the exoskeleton to accommodate the large brain. Energy is consumed by neurons in the brain to process information. Our evolution is thought to be linked to providing sufficient energy to our hungry brains, which consume 20% of our resting metabolism. Neurons send messages between them, which are needed to generate behaviour. It is these messages, encoded as small electrical pulses called action potentials, which are thought consume a substantial amount of the energy. We have recently calculated how much energy these electrical pulses consume in many different neurons, showing that they consume different amounts of energy. Although some action potentials are very expensive, consuming far more energy than they need to, others use almost the least energy they possibly can. These neurons are found in the brains of mammals, including our own. This enabled us to revise energy budgets for the brain. Understanding the energy consumption of different neurons is key not just for understanding the evolution of our brains and those of other animals but also for interpreting brain imaging, which is essential for medical diagnoses.

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