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Project title: Computational modelling of the emergence of somatosensory cortical maps

Primary supervisor: Dr Hannes Saal

Co-supervisor/s: Dr Stuart Wilson

Project description: The aim of this project is to to build a computational model of the development of cortical somatotopy in humans, focusing specifically on the representation of the hand. While many models exist that attempt to explain retinotopy in visual cortex, the equivalent problem in touch faces an additional challenge: our body is a three-dimensional object, whose representation needs to be embedded on the two-dimensional surface of the cortex. Which principles guide this transformation is currently unknown. Furthermore, our sense of touch relies on multiple classes of receptors, which respond differently to tactile stimuli. The contribution of each of these receptors to cortical map formation is currently unknown.

This project will focus on three questions:

1. What are the statistics of tactile input when manipulating objects and exploring the environment using our sense of touch? This part of the project will involve tracking finger movements, measuring contact events, and reconstructing peripheral neural responses using a large-scale spiking model of the nerve, while participants explore a variety of haptic stimuli.

2. To what extent is the structure of cortical somatotopic maps determined by the statistics of tactile input? This part will explore computational models for the development of cortical maps, with the aim of learning realistic maps of the human hand from the tactile data collected in part 1.

3. Finally, touch is an active sense, and how we choose to interact with objects and our environment determines the tactile feedback we receive. How does this relationship determine the development of cortical representations? This final part of the project will explore the effect that different movement patterns have on the resulting cortical representations.

This PhD project is suitable for applicants with a background in computational neuroscience and modelling and/or an interest in psychophysics.

Formal enquiries should be addressed to: Dr Hannes Saal (h.saal@sheffield.ac.uk) or Dr Stuart Wilson (s.p.wilson@sheffield.ac.uk)

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