Research carried out in our laboratory asks how adaptability (plasticity) in the nervous system tailors the behaviours of animals to their changing environment.

Our main approach is to combine electrophysiological recording techniques with quantitative behavioural analyses in insects while they carry out their natural movements. We collaborate with engineers to model the limb movements and to develop innovative signal processing techniques. We work with mathematicians and statisticians to develop cutting edge data analysis and management tools, which have been commercialised through a spinout company, Openbrain Ltd.

We are presently working on two main projects:
•  We are examining biomechanics and neuronal control of aimed limb movements in locusts.
•  We are characterising neuronal pathways involved in the change of solitary locusts into their swarm-forming gregarious phase.

Research Funding: BBSRC, Knowledge Exchange and Enterprise Fund, LIAS, ISSF, Nuffield Foundation Support Grant, Royal Society Conference Grant, Physiological Society, University of Leicester Startup Grant, J. Arthur Ramsay Fund, Weis Fogh Fund, National Science Foundation, Newton Trust and Charles Cook.

Current Group Members: Holly Fisher (2020), Brendan O'Connor (2018) and Ben Cooper (2016).

Collaborators: Prof Dr Volker Dürr (Aimed limb movements), Prof Rodrigo Quian Quiroga (Aimed limb movements and signal processing), Dr Swidbert Ott (Phase change), Dr Jozef Vanden Broeck (Phase change) - Part of the Neurobiology and Behaviour Research Theme of the University of Leicester.

Former Group Members: Zalina Ismail (2017-2018), Ahmed Faraj Ali Al-Zankana (2015-present), Georgina Fenton (2014-2017), Rien De Keyser (2015-2017), Jonathan Smith (2013-2018), Anthony Vencatasamy (2016-2017), Ben Warren (2015-2018), Chanida Fung (2014-2017), Carl Breacker (2012-2019), Jon Shand (2011-2015), Kamal Abu Hassan (2014-2016), Peter Sutovsky (2014-2016), Ted Gaten (2004-2014), Tom Nielsen (2008-2012), Sophie Bradley (2011-2013), Duane Fonseca (2013-2014), Luis Camuñas Mesa (2010-2013), Paul Gunderson (2009-2013), Rachel Lockley (2008-2011), Ria Cooke (2007-2010), Jan Ache (2009-2011), Alexandra Patel (2004-2009), John Bermingham (2009), Olivier List (2009), Matt Sheehy (2005-2009), DaeEun Kim (2006-2007), Julia Stalleicken (2006-2007), Keri Page (2002-2005), John Young (2000-2004), Jure Zakotnik (2002), Jon Shand (2010), James (Jim) Sinclair (2009 & 2010), Marc Rossello (2006), Alexandra Komissarova (2004), Angus McKnight (2003).

Former Undergraduate Project Students: Lili Evans (2017-2018), Jonny Gibson (2017-2018), Ben Flint (2015-2016), Andy Barnett (2015-2016), Sirinda Hansanant (2014-2015), Dani Charlton (2014-2015), Tom Young (2013-2014), Tom Lester (2013-2014), Jon Shand (2010-2011), James (Jim) Sinclair (2009-2010), Louise Way (2006-2007), Jon Lock (2006-2007), Miki Itsuji, Zoe Fung (2005-2006), Mark Howard (2004-2005), Alexandra Komissarova (2004-2005), Angus McKnight (2003-2004), Duncan Murray (2003-2004), Mark Williams (2003-2004), Fleur Kilburn-Toppin (2002-2003), George Harston (2002-2003), Robin Basu Roy (2001-2002), Miles Copeland (2001-2002), Tom Chappell (2001-2002), Ria Cooke (2001-2002), Tom Duckham (2001-2002), John Young (2000-2001), Keri Page (2000-2001), Shabna Rajapaksa (1999-2000), James Standing (1994-1995) and Bret Vykopal (1994-1995).

School Work Experience Students: Janki Parmar (2018), Jasmine Maslen (2018), Euan Goodwin (2017), Geoffrey Pugsley (2017), Farah Salim (2016), Morad Ouahani (2016), Charlotte Di Salvo (2015), Lewis Wills (2015), Darrel Court (2011), Katrina Threadgill (2010) and Tim Smith (2005).

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Current Research Projects:

Scratch trajectory1. Aimed limb movements in locusts: Limbed vertebrates and invertebrates make complex aimed movements in many behaviours. We seek to understand how the nervous system of an insect, the locust Schistocerca gregaria, controls such movements. What sensory signals are needed? How are patterns of motor activity structured? How are the effects of gravity, friction and muscle elasticity incorporated into the control? How does the nervous system adapt to changes brought about by growth or damage to a limb? Can analyses of the principles of organisation found in an insect nervous system inform the design of autonomous robots or neuroprosthetic limbs? The Figure on the left shows the trajectory of the tarsus (foot) marked at 40ms intervals during a scratch aimed at the tip of the wing. Further details about this project can be accessed here.

Locust22. Phase change in locusts: Locusts are characterised by their ability to form vast swarms that cause tremendous damage to crops and vegetation. What changes in the nervous system accompany this remarkable switch between their normally solitary phase and their gregarious swarm-forming phase? How is the visual system adapted to the different lifestyles of solitarious and gregarious animals? How do their different daily (circadian) patterns of behaviour arise? The Figures on the right show that Genetically similar juvenile locusts differ markedly in appearance depending on whether they have been raised either in isolation (top, solitarious phase) or as part of a crowd (bottom, gregarious phase). There are equally marked changes in physiology and behaviour. Further details about this project can be accessed here.

Spinout company Openbrain Ltd - Our BBSRC-funded research led to the development of innovative techniques for the management and analysis of complex datasets. We commercialised these Bayesian statistical approaches through a University-funded spinout company, Openbrain Ltd, which was wound up in 2017. The company was dissolved in 2017 to permit the Director to move on to other commercial interests.

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Previous Researches:

Some of my previous research includes the following:

Neuronal function at extreme low temperature

My Ph.D. student John Young has analysed mechanisms that permit the nervous systems of invertebrates to function at a constant low temperature of -2°C in the Antarctic. Animal behaviour relies crucially on the ability of the nervous system to react quickly to sensory stimuli, so Antarctic invertebrates face particular problems because the speed of action potential propagation, membrane excitability, and synaptic transmission are all reduced markedly. John has shown that changes in temperature affect some aspects of behaviour and neuronal function of Antarctic crustacea less strongly than in related temperate species. This work was carried out with the assistance of Professor Lloyd Peck (British Antarctic Survey). Click here for Paper 1. Paper 2.

Somatotopic mapping of chemosensory neurones

Together with P.L. Newland and colleages I have demonstrated that chemosensory basiconic neurones from receptors on the legs of a locust project into the thoracic ganglia in a pattern that parallels the projections of nearby tactile hair neurones. The central mapping of chemosensory information therefore resembles that of tactile information, and does not seem to form a distinct 'chemotopic' representation. These data support behavioural and physiological experiments which show that either chemical or tactile stimulation of a leg of a locust activates many of the same interneurones and elicits similar avoidance movements of the leg. Click here for the paper.

Analysis of presynaptic inhibition amongst chordotonal organ neurons

Together with Prof M. Burrows I have shown that indirect interactions between chordotonal sensory neurons shunt the sensory spikes and reduce the efficacy of their output synapses. The inhibition is greatest during movements when the sensory neurons are themselves most strongly activated, so the effect is to provide an automatic gain control mechanism that prevents saturation of the output target neurons when many sensory neurons fire together. This provides a mechanism that allows animals to respond appropriately to stimuli of widely different strengths. This work has been cited more than 70 times.

Octopaminergic neuromodulation of chordotonal organ neurons and their presynaptic inhibitory inputs

I have shown that the neuromodulator octopamine increases the ongoing activity in sensory neurons that signal tibial position, but it does not affect those from the same sense organ that signal tibial movements. At the same time, octopamine increases the strength of tonic but not phasic presynaptic inhibition of the same sensory neurons. This shows that networks processing sensory information may automatically compensate for alterations in the sensitivity of sense organs brought about by changes in blood levels of specific neuromodulators. This work has been cited more than 40 times.

Description and physiological analysis of a muscle tension receptor

Dr L.H. Field and I have discovered and characterised a muscle tension receptor in a specialised flexor muscle of the locust leg. Its synaptic connections with motor neurons, and the physiology of the muscle indicate that this receptor contributes to the control of limb posture. Click here for the paper.

A review of insect chordotonal organs for Advances in Insect Physiology

Chordotonal organs comprise a diverse range of mechanosensory sense organs present in all arthropods. They include proprioceptors, vibration detectors and auditory organs. L.H. Field and I have written a 228 page review that covers chordotonal organ morphology, ultrastructure, development, central projections, occurrence and homology in different insect orders, sensory transduction, signal coding and integration within the CNS, as well as descriptions of techniques and a comprehensive coverage of the literature. This review has been cited more than 80 times.

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Student Projects:

PhD projects, undergraduate projects and summer vacation work are usually available in the following areas:

If you choose to carry out a project in our laboratory, you will join our enthusiastic team to work on a specific research question tailored to your skills and objectives. You will be involved in the design of the experiments, carry them out independently under appropriate supervision, and be responsible for writing them up. Training and guidance will be provided throughout your project, but the objective is always to permit excellent students to demonstrate their independence and initiative. If you are interested in joining our lab, contact me.

Mechanisms and plasticity underlying leg aiming during scratching

Locusts respond to tactile stimulation of their wings with scratching movements of their hind legs that are directed towards the site of stimulation. Different sites of stimulation elicit different patterns of scratching. The computational problems that an insect faces in making such aimed movements are the same as those facing any other limbed animal, including humans.

  • How is the sensory information about the target encoded, and where in the nervous system is this spatial representation transformed into a temporal motor representation?
  • What properties of the neuronal circuits permit the calculation of an appropriate trajectory for the multi-jointed limb?
  • How does an animal choose between alternative movement strategies?
  • How is the behaviour recalibrated over time in response to growth and development or to lamb damage?
  • How do neuronal control signals interact with the biomechanical properties of the limb?
  • How important are the passive forces acting on the limb (muscle and joint elasticity and friction, for example)?

In this project you could learn to use a state-of-the-art movement tracking system to analyse limb movements, a range of electrophysiological techniques to measure the activity of muscles or identified neurones in the central nervous system, and could work alongside engineers to carry out modelling or computational manipulations of neuronal signals.

Scratch trajectoriesThe Figure on the left shows the side and top views of scratching movements aimed at a target at the tip of the wing (left panel) or the base of the wing (right panel). The dots and lines plot the positions of the foot (tarsus) in successive video frames (40ms per frame).

Previous undergraduate projects have generated publishable data, and students have been included as authors on published conference proceedings and papers (undergraduate student names marked with asterisks in the list of papers below).

Selected publications from our work on aimed limb movements:

Calas-List D, Clare AJ, *Komissarova A, Nielsen TA and Matheson T (2014) Motor inhibition affects the speed but not accuracy of aimed limb movements in an insect. Journal of Neuroscience 34: 7509 - 7521. doi: 10.1523/JNEUROSCI.2200-13.2014

Ache JM and Matheson T (2013) Passive joint forces are tuned to limb use in insects and drive movements without motor activity. Current Biology 23: 1418-1426. doi: 10.1016/j.cub.2013.06.024.

(See commentary: Sutton GP (2013) Animal biomechanics: a new silent partner in the control of motion. Current Biology 23: R651 - R652. doi:10.1016/j.cub.2013.06.052.)

Ache JM and Matheson T (2012) Passive resting state and history of antagonist muscle activity shape active extensions in an insect limb. Journal of Neurophysiology 107: 2756-2768.  doi:10.1152/jn.01072.2011.

Gunderson P, *McKnight A and Matheson T (2011) Functional recovery of aimed limb movements following partial amputation in the locust Schistocerca gregariaProceedings of the 33rd Göttingen Neurobiology Conference, T21-13A.

Blackburn LM, Ott SR, Matheson T, Burrows M and Rogers SM (2010) Motor neurone responses during a postural reflex in solitarious and gregarious desert locusts. Journal of Insect Physiology 56: 902-910.

Page KL & Matheson T (2009) Journal of Neuroscience 29: 3897 - 3907.

Page KL, Zakotnik J, Dürr V & Matheson T (2007) Journal of Neurophysiology 99: 484 - 499.

Zakotnik J, Matheson T and Dürr V (2006) Journal of Neuroscience 26(19): 4995-5007.

Page KL and Matheson T (2004) Journal of Experimental Biology 207: 2691-2703.

Matheson T (2002) Journal of Comparative Neurology 444: 95-114.

Matheson T & Dürr V (2003) Journal of Experimental Biology 206: 3175-3186.

Dürr V and Matheson T (2003) Journal of Neurophysiology 90: 1754-1765.

Matheson T (1997) Journal of Experimental Biology 200: 93-100.

Matheson T (1998) Journal of Experimental Biology 201: 2021-2032.


More details about aimed leg movements

Neurobiology of phase change in desert locusts

Desert locusts Schistocerca gregaria occur naturally in one of two forms: a swarming gregarious phase, or a non-swarming solitarious phase. There are many very striking morphological and behavioural differences between the two extremes, but little is known about changes in the central nervous system that drive the changes, or result from them. For example, solitarious locusts respond differently to visual stimuli, but only recently have we shown for the first time that there are related changes in their visual pathways. We have also demonstrated marked differences in neurotransmitters and neuromodulators in their brains. we are interested in differences in ageing, and in circadian aspects of behaviour.

In this project you will be able to analyse behavioural, morphological, molecular and neurobiological differences between the two phases to help determine the mechanisms underlying the transformation of a solitarious individual into a gregarious insect that contributes to economically devastating swarms. The techniques that are available for you to use range from simple behavioural observations of solitarious and gregarious locusts through to sophisticated computerised movement tracking from video, electrophysiological recording, computerised visual stimulation and data analysis.

Relative distance moved.jpg




The Figure on the right shows the Videotracking of individual locusts in an arena reveals that solitarious animals are most active (move furthest) after dusk (top), whereas gregarious locusts are most active in the afternoon (bottom). Grey shading indicates nighttime (lights out).

Previous undergraduate projects have generated publishable data, and students have been included as authors on published conference proceedings and papers (undergraduate student names marked with asterisks in the list of papers below).


Selected publications from our work on locust phase change:

Cullen DA, Cease A, Latchininsky AV, Ayali A, Berry K, Buhl J, De Keyser R, Foquet B, Hadrich JC, Matheson T, Ott SR, Poot-Pech MA, Robinson BE, Smith JM, Song H, Sword GA, Vanden Broeck J, Verdonck R, Verlinden H and Rogers SM (2017) From molecules to management: mechanisms and consequences of locust phase polyphenism. Advances in Insect Physiology 53: 167-285. (Also Cover Image by T Matheson T and H Verlinden.) doi:10.1016/bs.aiip.2017.06.002

Rogers SM, Cullen DA, Anstey ML, Burrows M, Despland E, Dodgson, Matheson T, Ott SR, Stettin K, Sword GA, Simpson SJ (2014) Rapid behavioural gregarization in the desert locust, Schistocerca gregaria entails synchronous changes in both activity and attraction to conspecifics. Journal of Insect Physiology 65: 9 - 26. doi: 10.1016/j.jinsphys.2014.04.004

Gaten T, Huston SJ, Dowse HB & Matheson T (2012) Solitary and gregarious locusts differ in circadian rhythmicity of a visual output neuron. Journal of Biological Rhythms 27: 196-205. doi: 10.1177/0748730412440860

Badisco L, Ott SR, Rogers SM, Matheson T, Knapen D, Vergauwen L, Verlinden H, Marchal E, Sheehy MRJ, Burrows M, Vanden Broeck J. (2011) Microarray-based transcriptomic analysis of differences between long-term gregarious and solitarious desert locusts. PLoS ONE 6(11): e28110.

Blackburn LM, Ott SR, Matheson T, Burrows M and Rogers SM (2010) Motor neurone responses during a postural reflex in solitarious and gregarious desert locusts. Journal of Insect Physiology 56: 902-910.

Rogers SM, *Harston GWJ, *Kilburn-Toppin F, Matheson T, Burrows M. Gabbiani F & Krapp HG (2010) Journal of Neurophysiology 103: 779 - 792.

Rogers SM, Krapp HG, Burrows M & Matheson T (2007) Journal of Neuroscience 27(17): 4621 - 4633.

Rogers SM, Matheson T, Sasaki K, Kendrick K, Simpson SJ & Burrows M (2004) Journal of Experimental Biology 207: 3603-3617.

Matheson T, Rogers, SM and Krapp HG (2004) Journal of Neurophysiology 91: 1-12.

Rogers SM, Matheson T, Despland E, Dodgson T, Burrows M and Simpson SJ (2003)  Journal of Experimental Biology 206: 3991-4002.


More details about phase change


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