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Athena Akrami to join Sainsbury Wellcome Centre

18 May 2018

We are delighted to announce that Athena Akrami, PhD will be leading a new group at the Sainsbury Wellcome Centre from autumn 2018.

Dr Akrami’s research focuses on the neural basis of parametric working memory (PWM) and she strives to understand mechanisms underlying memory, learning, and working memory-related behaviour at both circuit and algorithmic levels. 

SWC Director Tom Mrsic-Flogel says, “I am delighted that Dr Athena Akrami has chosen to join the SWC. Her research programme on the neural mechanisms of working memory will unravel how the brain links past events to future plans, decisions, and actions. She is an outstanding scholar with expertise in both experimental neuroscience and theory; she will enrich the neuroscience community at SWC and UCL, and contribute to our mission to explain how the brain generates behaviour.” 

Athena Akrami

After completing her undergraduate studies in Biomedical Engineering (BME) at Amirkabir University of Technology (Tehran Polytechnic, Iran), known as the Center of Excellence in BME studies, Dr Akrami earned a second major in Control Engineering, before embarking on a new trajectory in science i.e. studying neuroscience. 

During her graduate work in Alessandro Treves’ group at SISSA in Trieste, Italy, Dr Akrami developed a theoretical framework to evaluate the contributions of attractor dynamics to the perception of ambiguous stimuli and proposed an autoassociative model to describe neural dynamics in monkey inferotemporal cortex, a brain region involved in learning about complex objects. Dr Akrami showed that the same type of model is also able to describe the transient dynamics involved in some well-known behavioural traits in humans, including the adaptation aftereffect and priming. This suggested that common neural processes may underlie these phenomena, which were previously considered to be distinct. 

Following her graduate studies, Dr Akrami joined Mathew Diamond’s lab at SISSA, where she worked on a project addressing a long lasting debate about the involvement of hippocampal oscillations in sensory perception. In parallel, she slowly switched gears towards experimental neuroscience and developed the first PWM task in rats. 

During her postdoctoral research in Carlos Brody’s lab, at Princeton, Dr Akrami expanded the rodent PWM task to the auditory domain, using semi-automated training protocols implemented in high-throughput training facilities, and studied the role of different brain areas, in particular Posterior Parietal Cortex (PPC), in rat PWM tasks. She showed how prior sensory history affects perception and memory of rats and human in these tasks, and identified PPC as a causally necessary and important node in the representation and use of this prior sensory information.

Dr Akrami commented, “Embarking on an independent path to follow your dream questions as a junior faculty is extremely invigorating. At the same time, it can be an arduous journey, and one needs to have the right companions. When deciding where to build my lab, I was drawn to the uniquely supportive, ambitious, and intellectually stimulating environment at the SWC. Besides the brilliant science, I was struck by the sense of community, the level of interaction, and how everyone comes together in a collective effort to tackle the most fundamental questions in neuroscience. I am ecstatic about joining the SWC this coming Fall, and about building strong collaborations, friendships and stirring endeavours with all my colleagues.”

“My lab will study neural principles of memory organization and statistical learning, by combining systems neuroscience methodology and theoretical modelling. My research program will be highly interdisciplinary, and will mesh well with the conceptual framework the SWC team has been building. I look forward to many synergistic collaborations, and to contributing to this wonderful community. I believe it provides the perfect ambience with the right companions to begin my journey.”

The Akrami lab will be looking to recruit technicians, postdocs and students to join the thriving SWC community of experimental and theoretical researchers working together to tackle the biggest questions in neuroscience and understand how the brain circuits process information to generate perception, form memories and guide behaviour.  

Contact:
April Cashin-Garbutt
Communications Manager, Sainsbury Wellcome Centre
a.cashin-garbutt@ucl.ac.uk
+44 (0) 20 3108 8028