Larry Abbott

While growing up—first in Toronto and then in Boston—Larry Abbott developed a fascination with how things worked. When his parents bought a new appliance, he would take it apart so he could understand its internal mechanisms. “I was just curious and liked to tinker with things,” he recalls. That curiosity led him to study physics at Oberlin College, but he left the school shortly before completing his degree. “I just figured I had had enough,” he recalls. “I needed a little time to study physics on my own—to work out my own approach to science. When you do science, it’s almost more by feel than anything else, and I needed to feel my way along.”

Two years later, in 1973, Abbott decided to return to the academic world and entered Brandeis University to study theoretical particle physics. After receiving his PhD, he took a research associate position at the Stanford Linear Accelerator Center (now the SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory) and then spent a year in Switzerland at CERN (the European Organization for Nuclear Research) before joining the faculty in the physics department at Brandeis. “I was lucky to be a particle physicist at that time because the field had really exploded,” Abbott recalls. “I was on the tail end of that explosion—enough to catch the excitement.”

After a decade in the physics department, however, Abbott had become frustrated with the lengthy time gap between theory and experiment in particle physics. Then one day, he walked into Eve Marder’s neuroscience laboratory at Brandeis, where he looked through a microscope at a collection of crustacean neurons. “They had an audio monitor on,” Abbott recalls. “I could hear the neurons. That’s what did it for me. I really wanted to know more about it.” Abbott started going to Marder’s lab each day to learn everything he could about neuroscience. “Eve was incredibly generous with her time,” Abbott says. “I was like a graduate student in her lab.”

By 1993, Abbott’s transition to theoretical neuroscience was complete, and he joined the biology department at Brandeis. Since then, his work has focused on the computational modeling and mathematical analysis of neurons, neural synapses, and neural networks. Abbott has been a pioneering leader in the use of recurrent neural networks as models of the neocortex. Working with Marder, Abbott devised the dynamic clamp, a powerful experimental technique that can be used to simulate dynamic properties in neurons. It quickly became a widely used tool for the study of neural systems at the cellular and circuit levels. In collaboration with another Brandeis neuroscientist, Sacha Nelson, Abbott made new and important observations about the computational importance of synaptic depression. Working in collaboration with experimental neuroscientists “is very much how I work,” says Abbott. “An experimentalist comes to me with a really interesting problem, and then we work together to solve it.”

Abbott has investigated a broad range of topics in neuroscience, but among his most influential work is a series of papers that revealed important properties of spike-timing dependent plasticity (STDP), a term he coined. Using elegant mathematical analysis, he demonstrated, for example, that STDP leads to a competition among synapses that results in only the most strongly correlated synapses driving the post-synaptic activity of neurons. These insights triggered a paradigm shift in our understanding of the role of time in synaptic plasticity, helping to unravel the mysteries of how the brain learns and adapts to changing environments.

In 2005, Abbott left Boston for New York City, where he became the William Bloor Professor of Theoretical Neuroscience at Columbia University. “I had a wonderful time at Brandeis, but I was looking for something new,” he explains. At Columbia, he has worked on olfaction, with Richard Axel, on electric fish with Nate Sawtell, and on motor cortex with Mark Churchland.  Recently, Abbott has been using mathematical analysis to map the navigational neural circuits of flies (Drosophilia), in collaboration with Vivek Jayarman, Gaby Maimon, Venessa Ruta and Rudy Behnia, to build a better understanding of behaviors such as the tracking of odor plumes.

Throughout the years, Abbott has received numerous honors and awards for his work, including memberships in the National Academy of Sciences and the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. He lives with his wife, Cathy, in Manhattan. They have two children and three grandchildren.