David O'carroll

David O'carroll

Professor

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Research

Inspiration from Nature's little wonders

My research investigates how the amazing brain makes sense of the world seen by the eye. I'm interested in all areas of visual processing, but I use the insect brain as a ‘simple’ model system to study mechanisms for tracking and focusing attention on moving features. Despite their small size, insects are surprisingly sophisticated. We are often surprised by our own results: We have found several properties that we assumed were unique to the human brain right there inside the tiny brain of dragonflies and other insects!

Some flying insects have a visual system (eyes and associated brain regions) more than 20% of their body mass, so they invest more in vision than any other animal. What happens to the abundance of information collected by such huge eyes? How does the brain extract the most relevant features from complex scenes? These are the kind of questions I ask.

I answer these questions by studying the physiology of the brain directly, with nanoelectrodes 1000 times thinner than a human hair. I also collaborate with engineers in hi-tech industry to develop robust artificial vision systems. We have successfully developed novel computational systems and even silicon chips that mimic motion processing by insect brains and the ability to track moving features. Applications for this technology include guidance systems for robots and collision avoidance sensors for super smart cars. Imagine a car with the ability to sense and react to objects as well as a dragonfly! I also collaborate with neural stem cell researchers on developing an interface between computer chips and living neurons. One day this might allow us to develop bionic devices to connect our motion sensors directly to the brain of blind patients.

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