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Andrea Gonsek

Hello there! I am curious about how insects perceive their environment and want to understand the neural mechanisms underlying the processing of sensory information. In my PhD project I will investigate how the visual system of nocturnal hawkmoths processes highly dynamic visual inputs based on natural sceneries!

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My research

Flying insects use visual information to control and stabilize their flight. In nature, this information is highly dynamic, presenting a challenge for insect brains to extract reliable and relevant information from it. And yet, many animals master these challenges on a daily—and nightly—basis. Over the course of day and night, they face a wide range of light intensities from bright sunlight to starlight. Even within a short moment, the light environment can rapidly change between celestial conditions or habitat types – and at night with artificial light. Insects are thus confronted with not only complex, but also quickly and drastically changing information. How does the insect visual system adjust to these changes? And what are the exact properties of the visual input? Are there adaptive behavioural strategies to optimize acquisition of visual information? What are the effects of light pollution for nocturnal insects?

To answer these questions, I study both sensory processing and behaviour, which influence each other reciprocally. Using the nocturnal elephant hawkmoth, I am disentangling this closed loop using three key-stages: (i) adaptive behaviour, (ii) natural inputs, and (iii) sensory processing. The first stage will reveal natural flight dynamics of the moths in different light levels and will form the basis for imaging natural visual scenes. Here, I will record and quantify the dynamics of natural visual environments from a flying moth’s perspective, and then measure how dynamic tuning adjusts early visual neurons to compensate for these spatiotemporal light variations. Finally, to close the loop from sensory processing to behaviour, I will use a computational model of the motion vision circuitry to predict responses of downstream neurons that guide flight behaviour.

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