Faculty Profile

Dr. Jose L. Pena, M.D., Ph.D.

Jose L. Pena, M.D., Ph.D.

Professor, Dominick P. Purpura Department of Neuroscience

Areas of Research: We investigate how the brain selects relevant features of the environment to encode information efficiently. We study hearing in birds, using their specialized behaviors to elucidate fundamental principles of brain function.

Professional Interests

     The owl’s brain is a showcase in Systems Neuroscience for allowing the analytical approach to how information is processed and represented in the brain. Owls exhibit a characteristic orienting response towards sound sources. This behavior is highly reproducible, the variables involved in triggering specific responses are well characterized, and the system affords progressively deeper levels of analysis. Whereas spatial selectivity of neurons in the owl’s auditory system is initially broad and ambiguous, sharp space-specificity emerges in high-order neurons. In the midbrain, a map of auditory space is computed based on differences in time and intensity of the acoustic signals that arrive at each ear. These binaural cues are processed in parallel pathways that converge where the map emerges. We have focused on regions of the brain that are crucial for this synthetic process: the neurons where the difference between the arrival times of the sound to each ear is initially detected, and the space-specific neurons that respond to sounds coming from unique directions. We found that well-defined computations, which match predictions made by studies of sound localization in humans, underlie the emergent response properties of these neurons. Thus, the owl’s brain provides a system to test models of psychoacoustics at levels from single cells to networks of neurons.
     Recently, we have studied why owls make systematic errors when localizing in peripheral space. We could predict these errors from looking at how space is represented in the owl’s brain. In addition, we could show how making errors in the periphery could help to localize in the front. In the future, we plan to study how information flows in the sound localization pathway using in vitro electrophysiology as well as the recording of neural activity in behaving animals.

Selected Publications

Wang Y, Shanbhag SJ, Fischer BJ, Pena JL (2012) Population-wide bias of surround suppression in auditory spatial receptive fields of the owl’s midbrain. J. Neurosci. 32: 10470–8.

Fischer BJ, Steinberg LJ, Fontaine B, Brette R, Pena JL (2011) Effect of instantaneous frequency glides on ITD processing by auditory coincidence detectors. Proc Nat Acad Sci USA. 108: 18138–43.

Fischer BJ, Pena JL (2011) Owl’s behavior and neural representation predicted by Bayesian inference. Nat. Neurosci. 14: 1061–1066.

Penzo MA, Peña JL (2011) Depolarization-induced suppression of spontaneous release in the avian midbrain. J. Neurosci. 31: 3602–9.

Steinberg LJ, Peña JL (2011) Difference in response reliability predicted by spectrotemporal tuning in the cochlear nuclei of barn owls. J. Neurosci. 31: 3234–42.

Peña JL, DeBello (2010) Auditory processing, plasticity, and learning in the barn owl. ILAR Journal. 51: 338–52.

Fischer BJ, Anderson CH, Peña JL (2009) Multiplicative auditory spatial receptive fields created by a hierarchy of population codes. PLoS One. 4: e8015.

Perez ML, Shanbhag SJ, Peña JL (2009) Auditory spatial tuning at the cross-roads of the midbrain and forebrain. J. Neurophys. 102:1472–82.

Fischer BJ, Peña JL (2009) Bilateralmatching of frequency tuning in neural cross-correlators of the owl. Biol Cybern. 100:521–531.

Penzo MA, Peña JL (2009) Endocannabinoid-mediated long-term depression in the avian midbrain expressed presynaptically and postsynaptically. J. Neurosci. 29:4131–4139.

Fischer BJ, Christianson GB, Peña JL (2008) Cross-correlation in the auditory coincidence detectors of owls. J. Neurosci. 28: 8107–8115.

Wild JM, Kubke MF, Peña JL (2008) A pathway for predation in the brain of the barn owl (Tyto alba): projections of the gracile nucleus to the “claw area” of the rostral wulst via the dorsal thalamus. J. Comp. Neurol. 509:156–66.

More Information About Dr. Jose Pena

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Albert Einstein College of Medicine
Rose F. Kennedy Center
1410 Pelham Parkway South , Room 529
Bronx, NY 10461

Tel: 718.430.4088

Research Information