• Updated
11 March 2022

Adrienne Fairhall, specialist in theoretical neuroscience, visiting professor at the ENS

Adrienne Fairhall is a professor of physiology and biophysics at the University of Washington in Seattle, and a visiting professor at the ENS as part of the Tocqueville-Fulbright Chair. Since January, she has been hosted in the Laboratoire de Neurosciences Cognitives et Computationnelles (LNC2) at the DEC. She will be teaching and sharing her research in conferences and workshops until June 2022.

The study of the function of neural systems

Adrienne FairhallAdrienne Fairhall is a professor at the University of Washington in Seattle, where she also co-directs the Computational Neuroscience Center. "My lab uses mathematics and analysis to study the function of a number of neural systems. Much of her earlier work focused on the question of adaptation. " the relationship between stimuli and sensory neural responses is not static but varies in time. My lab has helped to show that many of these variations follow regular mathematical rules, and to investigate the biophysical mechanisms that underlie these dynamics. ». Currently my lab is working primarily on three systems. « From smallest to largest, we study the neuromechanical transformation from nerve net activity to behavior in the cnidarian Hydra, the learning and maintenance of birdsong, and the neural representation of flexible cognition in primates ».


Strengthening an international collaboration at the neuroscience and AI frontier

Adrienne Fairhall holds the Tocqueville-Fulbright Chair, which aims to strengthen collaborative research between the United States and France. This programme offers a French university the opportunity to invite an American professor/researcher to meet with their French peers, organise and participate in conferences, and interact with doctoral and graduate students in their discipline.

This is not the first time Adrienne Fairhall has come to the ENS. "I spent a summer at ENS Rue Lhomond while I was a graduate student, in about 1996, on a European Science Foundation fellowship, working in the lab of Patrick Tabeling on statistical physics of turbulence."

The development of international collaboration and a network at the frontier of neuroscience and AI largely motivates the scientist's stay in France. "One of the key reasons that I applied for this particular position is that I am the principal investigator on a collaborative National Science Foundation grant to develop an international network on brain-inspired computation and have been working closely with partners in the Group for Neural Theory as well as at the European Institute for Theoretical Neuroscience to develop this network. International collaboration at the boundary of neuroscience and artificial intelligence is of great interest both to the US and the French governments and part of my goal here is to continue to develop research interactions and to advance network interactions."


Birdsong at the heart of her research

At the DEC, Prof. Fairhall leads a series of seminars organised by the Group for Neural Theory (GNT) for Cogmaster students. She presents her research on birdsong. "Birdsong is a great example of a biological system that instantiates trial-and-error learning and can be described using ideas from reinforcement learning". The neuroscientist will also give a conference at the ENS on 29 March to present her research to a wider audience.

Her stay in France also allows her to further her research. "I have lots of common interests with my hosts in the GNT and several other Paris institutes, so am looking forward to ongoing conversations, but I have a specific project with Arthur Leblois who is now at the Bordeaux NeuroCampus. We submitted a joint grant proposal in December aimed at understanding how song variability is generated and modulated under different behavioral contexts."

Carried away by the charm of the capital, Professor Fairhall is relishing the pleasure of walking the streets of Paris after the past couple of years of semi-confinement during COVID. "Paris is such an intellectual city and a wonderful place in which to think about the deeper connections between our science and broader social implications of developments at the forefront of AI." In collaboration with Boris Gutkin, director of the GNT and the Mathematics of Neural Circuits team at the LNC2, she will be running a meeting on April 19 and 20 at the Institute for Advanced Studies in Paris on neuroscience, AI and its social implications.



Dr Fairhall, who holds dual Australian and American citizenship, grew up in Australia and graduated in theoretical physics from the Australian National University. During her PhD in physics at the Weizmann Institute in Israel, she studied the statistical properties of turbulent advection. After graduating in 1998, she moved into theoretical neuroscience with a postdoctoral fellowship at NEC Research with Bill Bialek, where she worked on adaptation in the neural code of fly motion neurons. She then moved to Princeton University, where she studied the coding of retinal ganglion cells with Michael Berry. In 2004, she set up her own laboratory in the Department of Physiology and Biophysics at the University of Washington. Her research group studies neural information processing through collaborations with experimental laboratories on questions ranging from the computational properties of single neurons to the neuro-mechanics of small invertebrates such as hydra, to learning and memory in primates. She co-directs the UW Computational Neuroscience Center, the UW Swartz Center for Theoretical Neuroscience, and the Accelnet Network for Brain-Inspired Computation, and has led summer courses in computational neuroscience at the Massachusetts Marine Biological Laboratory and Friday Harbor Labs.

Fairhall lab's website