Bruce Carlson

Bruce Carlson

Professor of Biology

contact info:

mailing address:

  • Washington University
    CB 1137
    One Brookings Drive
    St. Louis, MO 63130-4899

​Professor Carlson's laboratory studies animal communication, the neurobiological basis of sensory information processing, and the evolution of brain and behavior.

One of the primary functions of nervous systems is to extract information from the outside world and use that information to guide and coordinate behavior. When studying a particular nervous system, it is therefore important to consider the ecological context and evolutionary forces that have shaped that animal's natural behavior.

The Carlson lab combines electrophysiology, neuroanatomy, computational modeling, and behavioral analysis to study information processing in the electrosensory systems of weakly electric fish. These fish are phylogenetically and phenotypically diverse. They are also well suited to establishing direct links between the physiology of individual neurons and quantitative characteristics of natural behaviors. They are therefore an attractive system for addressing basic questions about information processing by sensory systems and the mechanisms of evolutionary change in behavior.

  • How do the activity patterns of peripheral sensory neurons represent information about the outside world?
  • How do central sensory neurons extract biologically relevant information from these patterns of activity?
  • How do central sensory neurons integrate information from multiple sources?
  • What drives evolutionary changes in sensory circuits, and how do these changes impact sensory information processing?
  • What drives evolutionary changes in the sizes and structures of brains?

By focusing on specific research topics related to these broad questions, the lab explores the impressive computational power of nervous systems and the factors influencing their evolutionary diversity.

recent courses

Introduction to Neuroethology

The neural mechanisms of animal behavior from an evolutionary and ecological perspective. Topics include: contributions of diverse species to understanding fundamental properties of nervous system structure and function; electrical signals of sensory cells, neurons, and muscle; neural processing of sensory input; neural control of behavioral output; anatomy and physiology of sensory and motor systems; learning and memory; evolution of neural circuits.

    Laboratory Of Neurophysiology

    Neurophysiology is the study of living neurons. Students record electrical activity of cells to learn principles of the nervous system including sensory transduction and coding, intercellular communication and motor control.

      The Science of Behavior

      The primary function of nervous systems is to control behavior. Understanding the links between brain and behavior requires an understanding of cognition-the computations performed by the brain, as well as the algorithms underlying those computations and the physical substrates that implement those algorithms. The goal of this course is to introduce students to the tools, concepts, and techniques for the experimental study of cognition and behavior in humans and nonhuman animals. We will focus on cognitive capacities that are well-developed in humans and can be compared with those of other species, to develop an understanding of how evolution shapes cognition and behavior. Students who complete this course will be able to ask questions and form hypotheses about the computations and algorithms underlying cognition and behavior, and to design experiments that test these hypotheses.

        Selected Publications

        Complete publications listed in Google Scholar and NCBI

        Carlson BA (2017) Early life experiences have complex and long-lasting effects on behavior. Proc Natl Acad Sci USA 114: 11571-1573 [PDF]

        Vélez A, Kohashi T, Lu A and Carlson BA (2017) The cellular and circuit basis for evolutionary change in sensory perception in mormyrid fishes. Scientific Reports 7: 3783. [open access]

        Sukhum KV, Freiler MK, Wang R and Carlson BA (2016) The costs of a big brain: extreme encephalization results in higher energetic demand and reduced hypoxia tolerance in weakly electric African fishes. Proceedings of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences 283: 20162157. [PDF] [Supplement] [United Press International] [Neuroscience News] [PhysOrg] [Science Daily] [Natural Science News] [Medical News Today] [Tech Times] [Jerusalem Post] [NSF] [Washington University]

        Baker CA, Ma L, Casareale C and Carlson BA (2016) Behavioral and single-neuron sensitivity to millisecond variations in temporally patterned communication signals. The Journal of Neuroscience 36: 8985-9000. [PDF]

        Vélez A and Carlson BA (2016) Detection of transient synchrony across oscillating receptors by the central electrosensory system of mormyrid fish. eLife 5: e16851. [open access]

        Carlson BA (2016) Differences in electrosensory anatomy and social behavior in an area of sympatry between two species of mormyrid electric fishes. Journal of Experimental Biology 219: 31-43. [PDF]

        Baker CA, Huck KR and Carlson BA (2015) Peripheral sensory coding through oscillatory synchrony in weakly electric fish. eLife 4: e08163. [open access] [Washington University] [Eurekalert] [PhysOrg] [Electronics Weekly] [Newswise] [Futurity] [redOrbit]

        Ma X, Kohashi T and Carlson BA (2013) Extensive excitatory network interactions shape temporal processing of communication signals in a model sensory system. Journal of Neurophysiology 110: 456-469. [PDF]

        Baker CA, Kohashi T, Lyons-Warren AM, Ma X and Carlson BA (2013) Multiplexed temporal coding of electric communication signals in mormyrid fishes. The Journal of Experimental Biology 216: 2365-2379. [PDF] [Inside JEB]

        Lyons-Warren AM, Hollmann M and Carlson BA (2012) Sensory receptor diversity establishes a peripheral population code for stimulus duration at low intensities. The Journal of Experimental Biology 215: 2586-2600. [PDF]

        Carlson BA (2012) Diversity matters: The importance of comparative studies and the potential for synergy between neuroscience and evolutionary biology. Archives of Neurology 69: 987-993. [PDF] [Read the critique by Hansen & Greek, followed by my response]

        Carlson BA, Hasan SM, Hollmann M, Miller DB, Harmon LJ and Arnegard ME (2011) Brain evolution triggers increased diversification of electric fishes. Science 332: 583-586. [Abstract] [Full Text] [PDF] [Supplement] [Science] [Science News] [Science Daily] [PhysOrg] [The Naked Scientists] [Washington University] [Eurekalert] [Wired] [redOrbit] [Futurity] [Gizmodo] [io9]

        George AA, Lyons-Warren AM, Ma X and Carlson BA (2011) A diversity of synaptic filters are created by temporal summation of excitation and inhibition. The Journal of Neuroscience 31: 14721-14734. [PDF]