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Two Substantial Grants from the European Research Council

ERC Starting Grants for Behavioral Biologist and Neuroscientist at Freie Universität Berlin

№ 204/2018 from Jul 27, 2018

The behavioral biologist PD Dr. Mirjam Knörnschild and the neuroscientist Dr. Radoslaw Cichy from Freie Universität Berlin have each won a Starting Grant from the European Research Council (ERC). Each ERC Starting Grant is worth up to 1.5 million euros over a maximum of five years. With the Starting Grants the ERC promotes pioneering projects led by researchers at an early stage in their academic careers. Mirjam Knörnschild’s project is entitled Culture as an evolutionary force. Radoslaw Cichy investigates how brain activity enables visual object recognition.

About the Projects

PD Dr. Mirjam Knörnschild
Culture as an evolutionary force

PD Dr. Mirjam Knörnschild works in the fields of behavioral ecology and bioacustics. She is a Heisenberg Group Leader at the Department of Biology, Chemistry, Pharmacy at Freie Universität and a visiting scientist at the Berlin Museum für Naturkunde – Leibniz Institute for Evolutionary and Biodiversity Research. Her project is entitled Culture as an evolutionary force: Does song learning accelerate speciation in a bat ring species?

Culture plays a prominent role in human evolution. Cultural differences can affect not only our behavior, but also our genes. The ability to metabolize lactose as an adult, for example, developed along with the cultural achievement of livestock farming. Such a coevolution of genes and culture can be found in different areas of life, not only in humans but also in other animals. However, it is still unclear whether cultural differences in animals are merely associated with genetic differences, or whether cultural differences can even promote the development of different species. Mirjam Knörnschild aims to answer this question by examining the influence of culturally transmitted dialects on speciation in a bat species: males of the greater sac-winged bat Saccopteryx bilineata are known for their versatile singing, which has distinct regional differences. These regional dialects are culturally transmitted, as they are passed on through learning processes from generation to generation. In addition, Saccopteryx bilineata in Central America is a so-called ring species, which is crucial for the research project. A ring species emerges when a species spreads around a barrier, such as a mountain range, and the two populations at the end of the ring no longer mate when they encounter each other again. Studying a ring species with culturally transmitted dialects makes it possible, for the first time, to test at each step of speciation along the ring whether cultural differences are responsible for genetic differences among populations. If culturally transmitted dialects actually speed up speciation, there would for the first time be evidence that cultural selection is an important evolutionary force along with natural selection and sexual selection.


PD Dr. Mirjam Knörnschild, Institute of Biology, Animal Behavior Lab, Freie Universität Berlin, Tel.: +49 30 838-50506, Email: mirjam.knoernschild@gmail.com

Dr. Radoslaw Cichy
Cracking the neural code of human object vision

Every time an individual perceives the world, the human brain transforms the stream of protons reaching the eye into a perception of meaningful objects. In spite of lengthy and intensive research, we do not understand how the brain achieves visual object recognition. In particular, three fundamental questions remain unanswered: How exactly does each brain region involved process information? How and what do these regions communicate? And what part of the brain activity observed is related to behavior? The goal of the research program CRACK (short for “Cracking the neural code of human object vision”) led by Dr. Radoslaw Cichy is to approach these three questions from a new perspective and to gain a better understanding of the code the human brain uses for object recognition.

In a three-stage interdisciplinary working program, the scientists working in the CRACK project under the leadership of Radoslaw Cichy will combine non-invasive imaging methods, advanced multivariate analysis methods, and computational modeling in a novel way.

“First, CRACK will elucidate the type of processing specific to each brain region involved through a new approach to brain mapping,” says Radoslaw Cichy. This is made possible by the use of computer algorithms, so-called artificial neural networks.

A second priority will be to elucidate the flow of information between the brain regions. “The idea is to combine two imaging methods, each with high spatial and temporal resolution, in a novel way” explains Dr. Cichy.

In a third step the scientists want to determine which portions of the brain activity described in steps one and two are directly related to behavior.

With these three steps CRACK aims to overcome existing barriers in the field of object recognition and to provide empirical evidence for a new theory of object vision.

Dr. Cichy hopes that the findings will provide new insights into the underlying neural mechanisms of vision. He says, “This fundamental research has the potential to change the way we think about sensory processing in the brain.”


Dr. Radoslaw Martin Cichy, Emmy Noether Group on Neural Dynamics of Visual Cognition, Department of Education and Psychology, Freie Universität Berlin, Tel.: +49 30 838-61132, Email: rmcichy@zedat.fu-berlin.de