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Heads of Laboratories

Head shot of Marcelo Magnasco
Marcelo O. Magnasco, Ph.D.
Laboratory of Integrative Neuroscience

Dr. Magnasco’s group uses 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 dolphin communication in aquaria and in the wild.

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. Meanwhile computer modeling is used to understand how and where sound is processed in the mammalian brain, as well as more general models of brain function.

Dr. Magnasco’s computational studies include both abstract modeling and data analysis. 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 electrocorticography recordings in humans and primates, demonstrating the footprints of such critical balancing during wakefulness and its absence during loss of consciousness, anesthesia, epilepsia, and normal sleep.

The laboratory’s effort into dolphin communication and cognition is carried out both in dolphins in aquaria, as well as in wild dolphins at several field stations, and aims both to understand the natural extent of dolphins’ vocal repertoire and communication ability, as well as their ability at acquiring novel signals. It involves both extensive data analysis efforts as well as fieldwork developing novel acquisition techniques.

Prior work from the Magnasco lab has touched on many aspects of sensory processing, including auditory, visual, and olfactory. Dr. Magnasco’s 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. 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. The group has studied venation of tree leaves as a model system of 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.


Lic. in physics, 1987
National University of La Plata

M.Sc. in physics, 1989
Ph.D. in physics, 1991
University of Chicago


The Rockefeller University, 1992–1993


Assistant Professor, 1993–1998
Associate Professor, 1999–2003    
Professor, 2003–
The Rockefeller University


Alonso, L.M. et al. Dynamical criticality during induction of anesthesia in human ECoG recordings. Front Neural Circuits 8, 20 (2014).

Bushdid, C. et al. Humans can discriminate more than 1 trillion olfactory stimuli. Science 343, 1370–1372 (2014).

Taillefumier, T. and Magnasco, M.O. A phase transition in the first passage of a Brownian process through a fluctuating boundary with implications for neural coding. Proc. Natl. Acad. Sci. U.S.A. 110, e1438–e1443 (2013).

Oppenheim, J.N. and Magnasco, M.O. Human time-frequency acuity beats the Fourier uncertainty principle. Phys. Rev. Lett. 110, 044301 (2013).

Katifori, E. et al. Damage and fluctuations induce loops in optimal transport networks. Phys. Rev. Lett. 104, 048704 (2010).

Dr. Magnasco is a faculty member in the David Rockefeller Graduate Program and the Tri-Institutional M.D.-Ph.D. Program.