Dr Allen Cheung is a QBI Group Leader who is using spatial navigation to decode the programming of how our brains act as a biological computer.
Dr Cheung became involved in animal navi-gation while working with 2014 Nobel Laureate in Physiology or Medicine Professor John O’Keefe, and the current Director of the Institute of Cognitive Neuroscience, Professor Neil Burgess, at University College London in 1999.
He cites Professor O’Keefe when saying that determining how we understand space could be the hippocampal Rosetta Stone, which we can use to decipher how the hippocampus works.
“The hippocampus is heavily involved in learning and memory, so it’s also our entry point to understanding other very important brain processes,” Dr Cheung said.
“The ultimate goal is to understand how brains compute; we’re trying to understand the brain as a biological computer.”
Dr Cheung uses behavioural data, and recent technological advances have allowed in vivo recordings to be made to directly capture brain processes in freely moving animals.
“In my work I always try to think about the behaviour of the animal whilst also thinking about the behaviour of the cells, so I’m trying to marry the two,” he said.
“When I joined QBI in 2007, it was as part of a big project called Thinking Systems, and one of the themes was to develop the technology to record data from rodents wirelessly.
“At the time the equipment wasn’t available; however, some colleagues developed such a system, and now a current collaboration I have with Professor Pankaj Sah is using that technology to record from rats wirelessly in an outdoor facility.”
Dr Cheung hopes that work like his will contribute to decoding the brain and may one day allow recording from the entire brain simultaneously.
“It also potentially allows us to use new and emerging technologies to influence either a normal, ageing or diseased brain to improve or alter its function, and there are already some technologies out there that seem able to affect memories,” he said.
In some ways, Dr Cheung’s life has come full circle with his office at QBI next door to Professor Mandyam Srinivasan, his former PhD supervisor at the Australian National University.
“Srini was a supervisor who gave me a lot of freedom, and a lot of time to do my own research,” Dr Cheung said.
“He fostered independence and he always treated me as a colleague rather than a student, so now that I have the opportunity to truly be a colleague it feels really good—and quite humbling.”