Shining new light on sensory brain activation and physiological measurement in seals using wearable optical technology

J. Chris McKnight*, Alexander Ruesch, Kimberley Bennett, Mathijs Bronkhorst, Steve Balfour, Simon E. W. Moss, Ryan Milne, Peter L. Tyack, Jana M. Kainerstorfer, Gordon D. Hastie

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

15 Citations (Scopus)
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Sensory ecology and physiology of free-ranging animals is challenging to study but underpins our understanding of decision-making in the wild. Existing non-invasive human biomedical technology offers tools that could be harnessed to address these challenges. Functional near-infrared spectroscopy (fNIRS), a wearable, non-invasive biomedical imaging technique measures oxy- and deoxyhaemoglobin concentration changes that can be used to detect localized neural activation in the brain. We tested the efficacy of fNIRS to detect cortical activation in grey seals (Halichoerus grypus) and identify regions of the cortex associated with different senses (vision, hearing and touch). The activation of specific cerebral areas in seals was detected by fNIRS in responses to light (vision), sound (hearing) and whisker stimulation (touch). Physiological parameters, including heart and breathing rate, were also extracted from the fNIRS signal, which allowed neural and physiological responses to be monitored simultaneously. This is, to our knowledge, the first time fNIRS has been used to detect cortical activation in a non-domesticated or laboratory animal. Because fNIRS is non-invasive and wearable, this study demonstrates its potential as a tool to quantitatively investigate sensory perception and brain function while simultaneously recording heart rate, tissue and arterial oxygen saturation of haemoglobin, perfusion changes and breathing rate in free-ranging animals. This article is part of the theme issue 'Measuring physiology in free-living animals (Part I)'.

Original languageEnglish
Article number20200224
JournalPhilosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences
Issue number1830
Early online date14 Jun 2021
Publication statusPublished - 2 Aug 2021


  • fNIRS
  • Near-infrared spectroscopy
  • Seal
  • Sensory ecology
  • Brain activation
  • functional near-infrared spectroscopy


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