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Neuroscientist wins PhD prize of the German Primate Center

Zurna Ahmed developed novel experimental environment for rhesus macaques
A rhesus macaque (Macaca mulatta) in the novel experimental setup that allows neurophysiological measurements with full freedom of movement. Photo: DPZ/Sensorimotor Group (SMG)
Zurna Ahmed hat am Deutschen Primatenzentrum in der Forschungsgruppe Sensomotorik der Abteilung Kognitive Neurowissenschaften promoviert. Foto: Jana Wilken
Zurna Ahmed did her PhD at the German Primate Center in the Sensorimotor Research Group of the Cognitive Neuroscience Department. Photo: Jana Wilken

The Sponsorship Association of the German Primate Center – Leibniz Institute for Primate Research awards the PhD Prize to outstanding doctoral theses in which studies on monkeys play a central role. The prize is endowed with 1000 euros and is supported by the MacLean-Erkelenz Foundation. This year's winner is neuroscientist Zurna Ahmed. She is investigating how movements are planned in the brain. For her project, she developed a novel experimental set-up that allows her to measure the activity of nerve cells in rhesus monkeys while they move naturally. The award ceremony with a presentation by the prizewinner will take place on May 10 at 4 pm at the German Primate Center, Kellnerweg 4, in Göttingen. All people who are interested are cordially invited.

If a human or a monkey pulls on a branch to reach a fruit, they do this out of the expectation that the branch will bend downwards. Until now, it was unclear whether expectations of such an action effect are found in the same brain areas where the movement itself is planned. As part of her doctoral thesis, Zurna Ahmed investigated how expectations about the effects of a planned movement are represented in the brain. She was able to demonstrate for the first time that the expectation of action effects is already encoded in these areas at the level of individual neurons during action planning, that is, before the movement is initiated. To achieve this, she first optimized the adaptation of cranial implants and developed a touchscreen experiment for rhesus macaques in which actions are immediately linked to their effects.

The Exploration Room
A major focus of their work was to develop an experimental environment that allows more freedom of movement for the animal during the measurement. "In everyday life, we don't just move our hand to the screen and back again," Ahmed explains. In the novel "Exploration Room", which was developed to a large extent by Ahmed, neuronal measurements can be taken from animals that do not sit but move freely through the room. "We have already successfully recorded the movements of the entire body of free-ranging animals and collected neuronal data simultaneously," Ahmed explains. Alexander Gail, head of the sensorimotor research group and supervisor of the work, adds: "We have succeeded in overcoming previous methodological limitations to explore the neuronal basis of natural movements". This makes new research questions accessible that could not be answered with the previous technological prerequisites.

Next step USA
Zurna Ahmed (32) studied medical technology at Furtwangen Technical University and then neuroscience at the University of Oldenburg. In 2018, she started her PhD position in the Sensorimotor Research Group at the DPZ in Göttingen. Since the end of 2022, Zurna Ahmed has been working as a postdoctoral researcher in the Sensorimotor Research Group of the Department of Cognitive Neuroscience at the DPZ. Her next career step will take her to the USA to the Department of Neuroscience at the University of Minnesota, where she will take up a postdoctoral position from summer 2023 and continue her research with freely moving rhesus macaques.

The award ceremony will take place on May 10, 2023 at 4 pm at the German Primate Center, Kellnerweg 4, in Göttingen. Everyone who is interested is cordially invited.