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Mathematical keys to a sixth sense -- the lateral-line system
Date:8/28/2009

t a tenth of a millimeter long. These so-called neuromasts which sit either directly on the animal's skin or just underneath, in channels that water can permeate through pores are sensitive to the slightest motion of the water. Coupled to them are hair cells similar to the acoustic pressure sensors in the human inner ear. Nerves deliver signals from the hair cells for processing in the brain, which localizes and identifies possible sources of the changes detected in the water's motion.

These changes can arise from various sources: A fish swimming by produces vibrations or waves that are directly conveyed to the lateral-line organ. Schooling fishes can recognize a nearby attacker and synchronize their swimming motion so that they resemble a single large animal. The Mexican cave fish pushes a bow wave ahead of itself, which is reflected from obstacles. The catfish takes advantage of the fact that a swimming fish that beats its tail fin leaves a trail of eddies behind. This so-called "vortex street" persists for more than a minute and can betray the prey.

For the past five years, Leo van Hemmen and his team have been investigating the capabilities of the lateral-line system and assessing the potential to translate it into technology. How broad is the operating range of such a sense organ, and what details can it reveal about moving objects? Which stimuli does the lateral-line system receive from the eddy trail of another fish, and how are these stimuli processed? To get to the bottom of these questions, the scientists develop mathematical models and compare these with experimentally observed electrical nerve signals called action potentials. The biophysicists acquire the experimental data measurements of lateral-line organ activity in clawed frogs and cave fish through collaboration with biologists. "Biological systems follow their own laws," van Hemmen says, "but laws that are universally valid within biology and can be described mathematically
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Contact: Patrick Regan
regan@zv.tum.de
49-892-892-2743
Technische Universitaet Muenchen
Source:Eurekalert

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