Vivien A. Casagrande, Ph.D.

Vivien A. Casagrande, Ph.D.

Professor of Cell and Developmental Biology, Emerita

Organization, function, and structure of the mammalian visual system.

"A Lifetime of Vision" Symposium Honoring Casagrande in Science

Research Description

The overall goal of this research is to understand how the visual thalamus and cortex interact to construct our perceptual world. The first project explores the unconventional proposal that the primary sensory information received by the visual cortex from the visual thalamus [e.g., the lateral geniculate nucleus (LGN)] is not purely visual but rather visual information, primed by inputs from other sensory modalities. In this project, we hypothesize that the primate brain achieves fast and accurate decision-making in part due to its ability to focus, right from the beginning, on relevant aspects of inputs from all sense organs without appreciating all the details presented by each sense organ. Our specific hypothesis is that auditory and visual information are combined in a task dependent manner in the visual thalamus before this message is processed in cortex. In a second project, we test the hypothesis that all thalamic nuclei contain some cell groups that act as drivers (send the main message) and some that act as modulators for multiple cortical areas, thus mediating the generation of an array of diverse cortical functions. The thalamus is not simply a passive relay to cortex. Instead, just as primary visual cortex (V1) depends on LGN, the secondary visual area (V2) and the middle temporal visual area (MT) depend on a combination of dedicated pathways through the thalamus (e.g., pulvinar) and direct feedforward connections from V1.This arrangement allows new properties to emerge at both the thalamic and cortical levels through dynamic loops. A third project focuses on communication between cells in different areas of visual cortex and examines how visual messages are coded and transmitted from lower to higher visual areas and what the role of feedback is in this process. We use a variety of electrophysiological, anatomical, and imaging approaches to address these questions including single unit and multielectrode recording in both anesthetized and awake behaving primates, light, electron microscopic and confocal examination of cells and circuits, optical imaging of intrinsic signals and pharmacological manipulation. Our laboratory also has had a long standing interest in the evolution of the visual system. Therefore, we continue to use a comparative approach to examine for similarities and differences in the organization of the visual system in a variety of primate species.

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