To date, a convincing computational framework for the processing of visual stimuli in neural circuits remains elusive. To fill this gap, Professor Wessel’s NeuroPhysics group seeks to delineate principles of visual information processing at the level of spatiotemporal network dynamics in optic tectum and visual cortex.
Arguably the biggest goal in modern neuroscience is to gain a deeper and more complete understanding of strongly correlated neural systems, known as microcircuits. A striking phenomenon of strongly correlated neural systems is visual perception. In broad strokes, it is intriguing to hypothesize that visual perception emerges from the interaction between incoming spatiotemporal stimuli and the internal dynamic state of neural networks.
The central component of the NeuroPhysics research program consists of in vitro electrophysiological recordings of cortical activity in the turtle eye-attached whole-brain preparation in response to computer-controlled visual stimulation of the retina. A key innovation of Wessel’s research lies in adapting quadruple intracellular whole-cell recording and multielectrode array extracellular recording techniques to the unfolded, yet intact, three-layer visual cortex during visual processing. The observed emergent phenomena, including oscillations, synchrony, and neuronal avalanches, are conceptualized using a framework informed by statistical physics and nonlinear dynamics. This synergy of advanced neurotechnology, comparative in vitro physiology, and physics-inspired theory provides a fertile opportunity to test the stated working hypothesis and to advance our understanding of cortical microcircuit function.
Wessel obtained an MS in Physics from the Technical University Munich in Germany and a doctorate in Physics from the University of Cambridge in England. During his postdoctoral training in neuroscience at UCSD in La Jolla, he was successively a Human Frontier Science Program Fellow and a German Research Council Fellow. In 1997, Wessel was appointed to Research Assistant Professor in the Department of Physics at UCSD. In 2000, he joined the faculty of Washington University in St. Louis, where he now holds the rank of Professor of Physics. He also holds a joint appointment in the Department of Neuroscience at the Washington University School of Medicine.
In 2007, the Graduate Student Senate selected Ralf Wessel to receive Recognition for Excellence in Mentoring as part of the Outstanding Faculty Mentor Awards. These awards were created by graduate students in the Senate to honor faculty members whose commitment to graduate students and excellence in graduate training has made a significant contribution to the success of graduate students in Arts and Sciences at Washington University.