Peter Dayan and Li Zhaoping appointed to the Max Planck Institute for Biological Cybernetics

The Max Planck Society appoints two renowned neuroscientists from University College London to the Max Planck Institute for Biological Cybernetics in Tübingen

Peter Dayan’s research focuses on decision-making processes in the brain, the role of neuromodulators as well as neuronal malfunctions in psychiatric diseases. Dayan has long worked at the interface between natural and engineered systems for learning and choice, and is also regarded as a pioneer in the field of artificial intelligence. As director, he will establish a new department at the Max Planck Institute for Biological Cybernetics and will have a decisive influence on the future development of the institute. Li Zhaoping’s research is wide ranging, with a particular emphasis on sensory systems, and she is known for a ground-breaking theory about visual attention. She will take up a professorship at the University of Tübingen, and becomes a Max Planck Fellow, conducting research at the Max Planck Institute.

With Peter Dayan and Li Zhaoping, the Max Planck Society has attracted a husband and wife team whose background and expertise perfectly fit the Max Planck Institute for Biological Cybernetics, with its storied history in linking theoretical and experimental neuroscience. They are also ideally suited to Tübingen as a research location. In addition to the Max Planck Institute for Biological Cybernetics, the Max Planck Institute for Intelligent Systems and several research centres at the University of Tübingen are also investigating the basics of information processing, learning and decision-making in the brain and beyond. They are complemented by other institutions of the Fraunhofer and Helmholtz Societies in Tübingen and nearby Stuttgart. This led to the foundation of the Cyber Valley at the end of 2016 - an initiative of the Max Planck Society, the universities in Tübingen and Stuttgart and the State Government of Baden-Württemberg.

"We are delighted that we have been able to recruit such outstanding scientists as Peter Dayan and Li Zhaoping. They conduct research at the interface of computer science, neuroscience and medicine. Their work will thus tie in with the research tradition of the Max Planck Institute for Biological Cybernetics and combine theoretical with experimental studies," states the President of the Max Planck Society, Martin Stratmann. "The two scientists will further deepen the close ties between the Max Planck Campus and the University," adds Bernd Engler, Rector of the University of Tübingen, "by doing so they will be able to draw on the many synergies that result from the cooperation between the University, the Max Planck Institutes and other non-university research institutions. “In particular, the close integration of basic research and the development of medical and many other areas is a trademark of the Tübingen and Stuttgart regions. The Cyber Valley is a prime example for an initiative in which science and business cooperate closely," reiterates Theresia Bauer, the Minister of Science, Research and the Arts of the State Government of Baden-Württemberg.

Decision making in the brain

One of the focal points of Dayan's research is the question of how the brain makes decisions. He has used theoretical models to investigate various forms of learning, including what is formally known as reinforcement learning. This studies how the brain integrates information from past rewarding and punishing experiences to make appropriate choices in the future. He also analyses the influence of messenger substances such as dopamine, serotonin and acetylcholine on decision-making processes in the brain. These so-called neuromodulators do not activate or inhibit nerve cells directly, but change the way they react to other sources of information over various timescales. In this way, they are associated with normal behaviour, and also many psychiatric and neurological diseases.

Dayan has developed essential statistical and programming methods for his research that allow him to simulate learning and decision-making processes on computers. Dayan's research has also laid important foundations for the development of artificial neural networks. In Tübingen, he will transfer his findings on the functioning of the brain to help advance the development of artificial intelligence.

Dayan's research on psychiatric illnesses, including depression, anxiety, obsessive compulsive disorder, addiction and borderline personality disorder, investigates how they can be seen as failure modes of systems involved in decision making. In the future, Dayan seeks to learn more about the causes and effects of these diseases, building bridges between a psychological and neural/organic understanding of how to classify disorders, what goes wrong and how it might be remedied. 

Dayan is also committed to applying findings from basic research in medicine and industry. In order for scientists to be able to translate results quickly from basic research into applications, they must be able to work closely with colleagues from different disciplines - a prerequisite that is ideally fulfilled at the Tübingen location with its various research institutions.

Sensing and perception in the brain

Zhaoping focuses on how the brain receives sensory inputs, such as those from vision and olfaction, and processes them in order to make decisions, control motor actions, and store in memories. To understand the brain across the scales from neural substrates to behavior, she employs theoretical, modeling, and experimental methods, including information theory, nonlinear dynamics, human psychophysics, functional magnetic resonance imaging, and electrophysiology.

In olfaction, Zhaoping pioneered a neural circuit model of the olfactory bulb, the first structure after the olfactory sensory nerves, to investigate how we recognize odor object components from odor mixtures in the environment, hypothesizing the role of feedback from the olfactory cortex and odor memories in this perceptual process. Her model explained various phenomena such as odor adaptation, odor masking, and odor target seeking, and predicted findings, which were subsequently confirmed experimentally.

In vision, she went beyond the traditional wisdom to propose that the primary visual cortex, the largest visual cortical area in the brain, creates from visual inputs a map of the visual field to guide our attention and shifts of gaze. This work provides fresh insights in various seemingly unrelated neural and behavioral phenomena and suggests a new framework to study vision. Zhaoping plans to work with colleagues in computational, experimental, and engineering disciplines in Tübingen to provide research, education and their impact to society.

About Peter Dayan

Peter Dayan studied mathematics at Cambridge University and received his doctorate in Edinburgh. After postdoctoral research at the Salk Institute and the University of Toronto, he moved to MIT in Boston in 1995. Since 1998, he has worked in London, where he co-founded the Gatsby Computational Neuroscience Unit, one of the best known theoretical neuroscience institutions, and was its Director from 2002-2017. He was also Deputy Director of the Max Planck/UCL Center for Computational Psychiatry and Ageing Research.

About Li Zhaoping

Li Zhaoping studied physics at Fudan University in Shanghai and received her doctorate from the California Institute of Technology (Caltech). After working in Fermi National Laboratory in Batavia, the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, Rockefeller University in New York and Hong Kong University of Science and Technology, she also moved to University College London in 1998 as a co-founder of the Gatsby Computational Neuroscience Unit. She is currently Professor of Computational Neuroscience.


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