Visual neuroscientist who has pioneered research into how our brains see and hear, and how animals like monarch butterflies and seabirds navigate amazing distances.
How do monarch butterflies navigate their way from North America to Mexico in their legendary migration every fall? What clues guide birds on their migratory paths? How would you design a study to find out? For the past 35 years, neuroscientist and psychologist Barrie Frost has been working on the way the brain - whether insect, bird or human - processes sights and sounds, and has discovered answers to these and many other questions.
Born in New Zealand, Frost's interest in birds developed early. He first trained as a teacher, then undertook scientific training which led him to Dalhousie University in Halifax, where he held the Rutherford Scholarship from the Royal Society of London. He did post-doctoral studies at the University of California at Berkeley and then joined the faculty at Queen's University where he continues to teach and conduct research.
Image by: Freelance Illustration
One of Frost's recurring interests is the way the brain distinguishes between movement caused by the head's own motion during walking or looking, and actual movement in the surrounding environment. An early project involved head-bobbing in pigeons. Frost put a pigeon on a treadmill and varied its passing environment using film. He was able to conclude that a pigeon's head-bobbing allows the bird to take a "snapshot" of what is going on around it and thus monitor its environment. In recent work, Frost's team has created a virtual reality lab where they can study the visual clues used by a pigeon courting a (virtual) mate.
Working with German scientist Henrik Mouritsen, Frost created an apparatus which allowed a monarch butterfly to fly under controlled conditions while researchers observed the way the butterfly oriented itself. Changes in the daylight schedule which the butterfly experienced resulted in changes in its direction - even when the magnetic fields were reversed. The researchers concluded that monarchs use a time-compensated sun compass, rather than a magnetic compass, to navigate during flight.
Frost has identified the group of brain cells that enable birds such as owls and pigeons, and non-birds such as humans, to use sight and sound to judge time and distance. His work has practical applications which are already helping people, such as a visual cue which helps Parkinson's patients to overcome bouts of akinesia (physical stalling). His "time to collision" research could lead to modified car tail-lights to improve drivers' braking time. He is also working on a miniaturized artificial "ear" for the profoundly deaf which allows users to "feel" sound through their skin.
Frost is an inspiring teacher, writer and public speaker. His article "How Owls' Eyes Hear", co-authored with Dr. Hermann Wagner of Germany's Max Planck Institute, was the cover story of the August 26, 1993, issue of the journal Nature. He has written over 100 journal papers and is one of the editors of the Journal of Comparative Physiology A.
Frost was a finalist for the 2002 Herzberg Medal, and was awarded an NSERC Award of Excellence that year.
Presently, Dr. Frost is working with scientists at McGill University to develop a miniature GPS device to track the yearly migration of the Sooty Shearwater between Canada and New Zealand. He continues his exploration of the brain processes that enable monarchs and Sooty Shearwaters to migrate.
Photo: Dr. Frost's webpage.