Sensory Neuroscience

Sensory systems allow us to create integrated maps of our immediate world based upon particular qualities of light, sound, touch, smell and taste. Sensory Neuroscience concerns the molecular basis of sensory transduction, which converts sensory inputs to neural code, and the transfer and processing of that information to the central nervous system to inform and to guide our behaviour.

Technical developments in electrophysiology, imaging and computing, combined with the development of tractable animal models for in vivo studies, have started to bridge the gaps between molecular biology, systems physiology and behaviour. These advances have potent applications to health, to the treatment of human disease and to the production of medical devices.

Sensory neurones in culture

Hearing

We study development, function and potential regeneration of the vertebrate auditory and vestibular systems with human stem cells, mouse cell lines, organ cultures and in vivo models in zebrafish and rodents.

Our current research shows how electrophysiological activity during development shapes the differentiation of mammalian hair cells and reveals subtle interactions in the development of the mechano-electrical transduction machinery and of the ribbon synapses that relay information to the nervous system. This is associated with the exquisite mechanisms for tuning in hair cells and their afferent neurons along the tonotopic gradient.

Additional projects explore the application of cell therapies to repair damaged innervation to the cochlea and the study of genetic models of human deafness in mice and zebrafish. Innovative light microscope techniques are also being used to generate stunning images of whole inner ear sensory structures.

Cilia in the zebrafish ear

Vision

In the visual system we work primarily with fruit flies and zebrafish, which allow us to use genetic tools, optical imaging, electrophysiology and computational modelling to study visual information processing from photoreceptors to neural networks and animal behaviour. We are interested in how visual systems maximise information encoding and transfer, how top-down processes influence visual processing, and how the central brain detects useful visual features in order to recognise objects in the environment and guide behaviour appropriately.

Olfaction

We use multiphoton imaging, electrophysiology and behaviour to study olfaction in fruit flies, a genetically tractable model organism whose olfactory system is remarkably similar to our own. We are interested in how information about odours in the environment is encoded in the central brain and how olfactory circuits wire themselves up to enable these coding strategies. Our current research shows how an animal’s ability to form odour-specific associative memories depends on the particular ways in which sensory information is encoded in central brain circuits.

Cross section of the retina of a zebrafish

Pain

Chronic pain is a complex multidimensional experience, affecting patients across all clinical disciplines. It often results in serious co-morbidities and psychological disorders such as anxiety and depression.

Chronic pain represents a major public health issue, impacting on health, quality of life, employment and the wider economy. However its pathogenesis is still poorly understood, which limits treatment options.

In Sheffield we take a multidisciplinary approach to further the understanding of chronic pain and improve its treatment.  An interdisciplinary team of scientists and clinicians – with extensive expertise in molecular biology, in-vitro and in-vivo modelling, treatment of patients with pain, and access to tissue samples from patients with known pain histories – work together with additional collaborators across the University with expertise in small animal and human magnetic resonance imaging, mass spectrometry, proteomics and biomaterials.

Our combined expertise enables us to develop an improved translational strategy to further the understanding of chronic pain and guide novel therapies for this condition.

Research expertise and principal research areas:

  • Mechanisms of neuropathic and inflammatory pain
  • Pain from bladder and bowel
  • Cancer-induced bone pain
  • Mechanisms of orofacial pain
  • Molecular mechanisms of sensory neurone sensitization in pain
  • Preclinical evaluation of migraine
  • Psychological, social and gender differences in pain perception
  • Botulinum proteins for long-lasting alleviation of pain
  • Nerve repair and regeneration
Transverse section of a spinal cord
Peripheral nerve regeneration following injury