Circuits for Survival
Inaugural symposium organized by TRA Life and Health

"Circuits for Survival" -
Inaugural Symposium
Hertz Chair for AI and Neuroscience
Prof. Dr. Dr. Dominik Bach

Biological survival poses some of the hardest computational challenges that we can think of. Escaping a predator within a fraction of a second, learning novel strategies without error margin, remembering near-misses for a lifetime while forgetting unimportant detail – these are difficult tasks for any intelligent agent, biological and artificial. In this symposium, we bring together speakers from molecular, circuit, systems, and computational neuroscience, to shed light on how some of these problems might be solved in neural or digital circuits.

The symposium will take place on

Monday, September 26, 2022

General Information

When: September 26, 2022, 9 a.m. to 5 p.m.

Where: Festsaal, University of Bonn, Am Hof 1, 53113 Bonn (on-site only!)

Participation: Open to all interested scientists. Participation is free of charge. Registration is mandatory.


Registration is closed

Keynote speakers

Foto Bianca Silva.jpg
© Bianca Silva

Bianca A. Silva

Institute of Neuroscience, Consiglio Nazionale di Ricerche, Italy

Kevin Briggman
© Kevin Briggman

Kevin Briggman

Max-Planck-Institute for Neurobiology of Behaviour, Bonn

Foto Vanessa Stempel.jpg
© Vanessa Stempel

Vanessa Stempel

Max-Planck-Institute for Brain Research, Frankfurt

Jason Kerr
© J. Kerr

Jason Kerr

Max-Planck-Institute for Neurobiology of Behaviour, Bonn

Benjamin Grewe
© B. Grewe

Benjamin Grewe

Institute of Neuroinformatics, ETH Zürich

Foto Dayan_kleiner.jpg
© Peter Dayan

Peter Dayan

Max-Planck-Institute for Biological Cybernetics, Tübingen

Inaugural Lecture

Prof. Dr. Dominik Bach
© Barbara Frommann/Uni Bonn

Dominik Bach

Hertz Chair for Artificial Intelligence and Neuroscience, TRA Life and Health, University of Bonn


9:00 a.m. to 9:30 a.m.


9:30 a.m. to 9:35 a.m.


9:35 a.m. “Neural mechanisms of memory update”
Bianca A. Silva
, Institute of Neuroscience, Consiglio Nazionale di Ricerche, Italy

How are consolidated memories modified on the basis of experience? Understanding this biological process allows us to decipher how new information is constantly incorporated into existing memory, how a newly formed memory is integrated into previous knowledge and how the fine balance between memory stability and memory flexibility is maintained. By using fear memory extinction as a model of memory update, we combined neuronal circuit mapping, fiber photometry, chemogenetic and closed-loop optogenetic manipulations in mice, and showed that the extinction of remote (30-day old) fear memories depends on thalamic nucleus reuniens (NRe) inputs to the basolateral amygdala (BLA). We find that remote, but not recent (1-day old), fear extinction activates NRe to BLA inputs, which become potentiated upon fear reduction. Both monosynaptic NRe to BLA, and total NRe activity increase shortly before freezing cessation, suggesting that the NRe registers and transmits safety signals to the BLA. Accordingly, pan-NRe and pathway-specific NRe to BLA inhibition impairs, while their activation facilitates fear extinction. These findings identify the NRe as a crucial BLA regulator for extinction, and provide the first functional description of the circuits underlying the experience-based modification of consolidated fear memories.

10 a.m. "Anatomically constrained models of visual circuit computations"
Kevin Briggman
, MPI Neurobiology of Behaviour, Bonn

10.30 a.m. Coffee break


11 a.m. "Midbrain circuits for flexible instinctive behaviours"
Vanessa Stempel, 
MPI for Brain Research, Frankfurt am Main

Instinctive behaviours, such as mating, hunting and defence have evolved to ensure survival without the need for learning. In vertebrates, instinctive behaviours are generated by remarkably conserved brain circuits, and it has become increasingly clear in recent years that instinctive behaviours are flexible in regard to both action selection and execution. Despite a large body of behavioural work, the neural mechanisms underlying the flexible implementation of instinctive behaviours remain largely unknown. In this talk, I will discuss how excitatory and inhibitory neural circuits in the midbrain periaqueductal gray dynamically control the initiation and execution of multiple instinctive behaviours.


11.30 a.m. "Seeing what they see - tracking skeletal kinetics and imaging cortical activity in the freely moving animal"
Jason Kerr, 
MPI Neurobiology of Behaviour, Bonn

12.00 - 12.30 Ben Cruchley, Piano

12:30 p.m. to 1:30 p.m.


1.30 p.m. "Sensory and behavioural substrates of avoidance learning in prefrontal cortex population activity"
Benjamin Grewe, ETH Zürich

2 p.m. "Risk, replay and rehearsal", 
Peter Dayan, MPI Biological Cybernetics, Tübingen

Risk, which arises when outcomes are not completely certain, occupies a central role in both the theory and practice of decision-making, and is especially important in the context of survival. Fortune famously favours the prepared, and so we examine how animals might go about preparing themselves appropriately in the face of potential threats. First, we formalize risk using a modern theoretical approach called conditional value-at-risk (CVaR), which emphasizes the worst outcomes. Then, we examine what policies are appropriate to optimize a CVaR measure. Finally, we consider how these policies might be optimized offline, using (p)replay, during safe epochs. We relate these preparation processes to worry and rumination. This is joint work with Chris Gagne.

2:30 p.m. to 3 p.m.

Coffee Break

3 p.m. - Introduction by Vice Rector Prof. Andreas Zimmer 

3:10 p.m. Inaugural lecture Dominik Bach: 
Critical intelligence: computational characteristics of human escape 

Animals have to cope with immediate threat to survive and reproduce. Many species employ complex and sophisticated defensive behaviors. Rapid decisions between these actions, without much leeway for cognitive or motor errors, poses a formidable computational problem. In this lecture, I will give an overview of these challenges, and potential theoretical solutions. I will then present data from experiments designed to reveal the biologically implemented decision algorithms. Here, humans are exposed to various threats in a fully-immersive virtual reality, in which they can escape and run for shelter. These data challenge the view that escape behaviour is instinctive or hard-wired. Instead, the underlying algorithm appears goal-directed, and dynamically updates decisions as the environment changes. In contrast, information-seeking behaviour might rely on simpler computations.

4 p.m. Ben Cruchley, Piano

Afternoon Music

from 4.30 p.m. - Reception

Musical Program

Berlin-based Canadian musician Ben Cruchley leads a diverse artistic life as pianist and conductor; collaborates in innovative and unusual projects in the domains of Musiktheater and performance art; and, as an educator, experiments with and researches new approaches for the transmission of musical experiences. 

Benjamin Cruchley
© B. Cruchley


Dr. Meike Brömer, Manager TRA Life and Health
+49 228-7354470

Transdisciplinary Research Area (TRA) Life & Health

Understanding the complexity of life - developing new strategies for health.
Read more about TRA Life and Health.

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