Heads of Laboratories

Marcelo O. Magnasco, Ph.D.

Laboratory of Mathematical Physics

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Faculty Bio

Marcelo Magnasco

Dr. Magnasco leads a group of physicists who use living beings as a source of inspiration for creating new mathematical descriptions of nature. The lab’s main focus is on computational and experimental neurophysiology, primarily auditory function but also touching on vision, memory, olfaction and other sensory processing, as well as studies of animal communication in species from songbirds to dolphins. 

Dr. Magnasco uses both computational and experimental methods to model the complexity, organization and information-processing properties of living organisms. The lab concentrates on sensory processing: Experimental techniques are employed to investigate the auditory representation of complex objects in laboratory animals as well as humans, and study communication in dolphins, while computer modeling is used to understand how and where sound is processed in the mammalian brain. 

The experimental side of the Magnasco lab aims to understand how the brain processes and represents complex sounds. For instance, of keen interest to the group is a family of sounds called auditory textures — such as a crackling fire or falling rain — that have a statistical homogeneity that makes them analyzable. These sounds are of great biological relevance: first, because the sounds themselves have intrinsic survival value, as finding water or escaping forest fires are important across species; and second, because all auditory detection of prey and predators is carried out against a backdrop of such sounds. Perception of such textures has been explored electrophysiologically in rodents and psychoacoustically in humans. 

Dr. Magnasco’s computational studies include both abstract modeling as well as data analysis efforts. Modeling work is under way on neural architectures of auditory processing, including frequency discrimination and spatial perception models, as well as on neural function and memory, such as mechanisms employed by the brain to balance excitatory and inhibitory activity in neural circuits. Data analysis work concentrates on methods to analyze large-scale neurophysiological datasets, such as those stemming from eco-corticography recordings in humans and primates. 

Another research line in the lab has focused on vascular networks as archetypes of complex biological function from simple components. The group has studied venation of tree leaves, a complex biological network with interesting topological and geometrical features, and has recently created methods to section whole rodent livers and reconstruct their three-dimensional vascular structure in unprecedented detail. 

Prior work from the Magnasco lab has touched on many aspects of sensory processing, including auditory, visual and olfactory. His work with Rockefeller’s A. James Hudspeth resulted in the creation of a mathematical model of a “trapdoor amplifier” in the hair cells of the inner ear, research that challenged some of the most basic assumptions about how the human ear processes sound. His work in birdsong, which followed expression of the ZENK gene, allowed researchers to watch song learning and memory at the cellular level in the brains of canaries. Furthermore, in a sound analysis breakthrough, Dr. Magnasco created an algorithm that transforms sound into visual representations with far more accuracy than anything currently available and that may use the same type of method as the human brain.


Dr. Magnasco graduated from the National University of La Plata in Argentina with a bachelor’s degree in physics in 1987. He received his Ph.D. in physics from the University of Chicago in 1992 and then came to Rockefeller as a postdoc and visiting scientist at the NEC Research Institute. The following year, he was named assistant professor and head of laboratory, the first faculty member recruited to Rockefeller’s Center for Studies in Physics and Biology. He was promoted to associate professor in 1999 and professor in 2003. From July 2002 through July 2003 he also worked as a research scientist at UNESCO’s Abdus Salam International Center for Theoretical Physics.

In 1991 Dr. Magnasco was named the University of Chicago’s Sydney Bloomenthal Dissertation Fellow and the William Rainey Harper Dissertation-Year Fellow.

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