Yasser Roudi: Creating maps in the brain

Physicist sifts through brain’s vast data dump

Yasser Roudi headshot

SIGNAL SEARCHER  Physicist Yasser Roudi is gleaning new insights into how the brain processes information.

Geir Mogen/NTNU

Yasser Roudi, 34
Norwegian University of Science and Technology | Computational Neuroscience
Graduate school: SISSA in Trieste, Italy

Your senses are bombarded by constant information — sounds, colors, shapes and ever-changing motion — yet you don’t notice most of these things. The brain has figured out ways to pay attention to relevant information and ignore distractions.

How the brain does this is not fully understood, but physicist Yasser Roudi says one thing is clear: “It’s about information processing in a very chaotic environment that’s full of signals.”

Roudi is figuring out how to sort through and make sense of the vast number of inputs that bombard the brain and other complex systems.

Born in Tehran, Roudi knew from an early age that he wanted to pursue physics and mathematics. While studying physics at Sharif University of Technology in Tehran, he met a teacher who introduced him to the brain and its networks of neurons. At posts in London and Stockholm, Roudi worked on applying math and physics to studies of the brain and other systems. In 2010, he moved to the Kavli Institute for Systems Neuroscience at the Norwegian University of Science and Technology in Trondheim.

NEURON NUMBERS Roudi works on algorithms that track how brain cells process information. NTNU

Today, Roudi draws on information theory and statistical mechanics to extract meaningful information from the data deluge. He’s finding ways to apply math to a messy living system, developing algorithms to draw inferences about the brain.

In 2013, Roudi’s team revealed intricate details of how the brain’s GPS-like neurons called grid cells form their maps, which allow animals to navigate and sense their surroundings. In some cases, pairs of grid-like cells curb each other’s behavior. His group also described how signals from the hippocampus influence grid cells. The findings appeared in two papers in Nature Neuroscience.

Roudi’s group is now developing automated ways to analyze even more data from complex systems and help scientists find “hidden” but important variables.

“Certainly a lot of breakthroughs in science have come through because somebody came across a cell that happened to respond to a certain thing, but not other things,” Roudi says. “The signal was there, and people had been recording it, but it just didn’t catch the attention that it should have.”

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