Inside a bat’s brain

Written on |

Prof. Yaniv Assaf and Prof. Yossi Yovel are working together on a unique collection of brain scans of different mammals

It’s a chicken versus egg scenario: Does behavior build a neural network or does the design of a brain network dictate behavior? It turns out that they both influence each other.

“Evolutionary science holds that particular behaviors drives the brain to develop and evolve in a particular way. Later, brain networks may drive behavior,” explains Prof. Yossi Yovel of the Department of Zoology, George S. Wise Faculty of Life Sciences. Yovel specializes in bat echolocation – the location of objects by reflected sound – at his Bat Lab of Neuro-Ecology. 

A number of years ago he approached his former MSc advisor, Prof. Yaniv Assaf, Head of the Department of Neurobiology, with a surprising request. Yovel sought to draw on Assaf’s expertise in MRI imaging techniques to scan the brains of wild bats. Could the images show how bats’ use of sound rather than vision to navigate the world influences the development of their neural networks? “I focus on human brain imaging,” says Assaf. “Now, five years later, we have scanned over 100 species – all expired of natural causes – including many species of bats, of course,” Assaf continues with a nod to Yovel. “We use the MRI machine after hours so as not to interfere with ongoing research, and we have found that, yes, bat brain networks have highly developed aural – rather than visual – networks.”

From bats to all mamals

What began as a scientific hobby has become a scientific first. The scans, which are specially calibrated to show the design and function of brain microstructure, pathways, and networks, reveal the principles governing the mammalian brain.

“Like the internet and other computer networks, or road and transportation systems, the brain is a network. The brain’s two hemispheres are connected with fibers. Our scans show that mammals with a greater number of inter-hemisphere connecting fibers will have, inversely, poorer connectivity within the hemisphere itself and vice-versa,” says Assaf. “This information can influence how networks are constructed.”

The true story of the autistic man who inspired the film Rain Man illustrates this phenomenon: The hemispheres of his brain were completely unconnected. The local network in each hemisphere was so strong that he could perform complex computations within seconds. But the lack of connection between hemispheres affected his function and behavior. We need a mix of both for a functional, strong network.

Access for researchers worldwide

”While evolutionary scientists are certainly interested in our scans, it is mathematicians and computer scientists working on smart, efficient computer networks and artificial intelligence who are the most excited,” says Assaf.

Yovel continues, “When people hear about our project at conferences or by word of mouth, they immediately want to see our findings. But we are not yet ready. We aim to scan 10% of all mammals, which means about 500 species including those transported from abroad, which will be very costly. We need graduate students to help build the collection more quickly. We aim to create the only collection of its kind worldwide – a digital collection of scans at the Steinhardt Museum of Natural History that can be accessed by scientists around the world.”

Featured image: Prof. Yossi Yovel and Prof. Yaniv Assaf 

Related posts

Over the Past 1.5 Million Years, Human Hunting Preferences have Wiped Out Large Animals

December 30, 2021

How Do Bats Get Street-Smart?

November 24, 2021

Revisiting the Tel Aviv Zoo

November 12, 2021

Like Teenagers on Vacation

November 3, 2021

Seahorses – Slow, but Fierce

October 7, 2021

Why Do We Squabble Over The AC?

October 5, 2021

A House is Not a Home Without a Pet

October 4, 2021

Where Have All the Birds Gone?

August 11, 2021

Tel Aviv Bats Have More Fun

July 22, 2021

Bats ‘Social Distance’ Too

June 6, 2021

Time Flies and So Do Bats

June 1, 2021

When One Becomes Three

May 20, 2021

Fireflies’ Protective ‘Musical Armor’ Against Bats

May 12, 2021

An Underwater Salute to Grandma Vera

April 8, 2021

Struggling in a Toxic Workplace?

April 6, 2021

Robot “Hears” through the Ear of a Locust

March 5, 2021

Victoria

Tok Corporate Centre, Level 1,
459 Toorak Road, Toorak VIC 3142
Phone: +61 3 9296 2065
Email: office@aftau.asn.au

New South Wales

P.O. Box 4044, Maroubra South,
NSW 2035
Phone: +61 418 465 556
Email: davidsolomon@aftau.org.au

Western Australia

P O Box 36, Claremont,
WA  6010
Phone: :+61 411 223 550
Email: clivedonner@thelinqgroup.com