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Focusing on vision – Dr. Martin Rolfs receives DFG funding for research on perception and attention

Three times per second, the focus of our eyes jumps from one object to another - and so does the image on the retina. Dr. Martin Rolfs examines how the brain still knows where to find important objects, and what role attention plays.

Starting from October, he will be heading an Emmy-Noether-Group at the Humboldt University, Berlin, and will be an associate member of the Bernstein Center for Computational Neuroscience, Berlin (BCCN Berlin).

The Emmy Noether program of the German Research Foundation (Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft, DFG) encourages outstanding young researchers from around the world to set up a long-term research group in Germany.

When looking across the desk, we constantly focus on different objects – the screen, the coffee cup, the keyboard, and then the screen again. With each eye movement, these objects jump on the retina, where they are mapped onto different locations. We do not notice these jumps and can safely grab our coffee cup at any time. Therefore, our brain must always know the position of relevant objects in the perceived image. In his newly established Emmy-Noether-Group, Martin Rolfs will examine how attention contributes to stabilizing visual perception.

As Rolfs recently demonstrated, the position of important objects in the visual field is predicted even before the eye movement. “The forecasts that the brain has to provide for greater body movements are complex and need to integrate information from different areas of the brain. Under these conditions, it is absolutely unclear whether and how it is possible to direct visual attention to the relevant positions,” says Rolfs. This is a subject he would like to explore over the next five years under highly realistic conditions. In collaborations, amongst others with groups under Professor Fred Hamker and Professor Ralf Engbert, he plans to reproduce critical processing steps in the brain in theoretical models, in order to better understand the contribution of different brain regions.

Already in his diploma thesis at the University of Potsdam, Rolfs had worked on eye movements – the smallest of their kind – that scan the image while we focus on an object. After his graduation, he investigated with Professor Patrick Canvanagh in Paris and with Professor Marisa Carrascohe in New York, among other things, the interplay between perception and movement.

After four years abroad, Rolfs is now looking forward to his return to Germany: “I think the scientific community in Germany is very attractive. In particular brain research in Berlin – which features many big names - has developed greatly.” With its location at the Bernstein Center Berlin, the group is from the beginning well connected to the other Berlin competences. Leaders of Emmy-Noether groups can freely choose the amount of teaching that they want to do. “I see this as a special privilege, because it allows me to concentrate on my research without losing contact with the students,” says Rolfs.

The Emmy-Noether group will be supported by the German Research Foundation for five years and aims at (re)gaining internationally outstanding young scientists for research locations in Germany.

The Bernstein Center Berlin is part of the National Bernstein Network Computational Neuroscience (NNCN) in Germany. The NNCN was established by the German Federal Ministry of Education and Research with the aim of structurally interconnecting and developing German capacities in the new scientific discipline of computational neuroscience. The network is named after the German physiologist Julius Bernstein (1835–1917).

For further information please contact:

Dr. Martin Rolfs
Bernstein Center for Computational Neuroscience
Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin
Philippstr. 13, Haus 6
D-10115 Berlin

Dr. Simone Cardoso de Oliveira | idw
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