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Professor Alan Roberts

Professor Alan Roberts

Professor Alan Roberts
B.A.(Cantab.), Ph.D.(Calif.)

Emeritus Professor

Area of research

How the central nervous system controls locomotion and other behaviour in frog tadpoles

Office 127B
Life Sciences Building,
24 Tyndall Avenue, Bristol BS8 1TQ
(See a map)


Our strategy is to study a very simple nervous system hoping to understand the basic rules for operation and development. We study the central nervous system of very young Xenopus tadpoles to try to understand how the animal's simple swimming and struggling behaviour arises. First we use high-speed videos to define the responses to sensory stimuli. Then we study how CNS neuronal networks control this behaviour.

We  use an immobilised preparation where pairs of CNS neurons can be seen using a water immersion lens, recorded using whole cell patch methods and later examined anatomically using neurobiotin filling. This allows us to examine synaptic interactions and as well as activity in response to natural sensory stimuli. We are currently using a unique measuring microscope to define 3D morphology of CNS neurons.

We are interested in overall organisation of neuronal control systems and the cellular and synaptic properties that underlie this. We use computer network models to evaluate our findings and are presently trying to build a self-assembling anatomical CNS model of the tadpole's CNS with support from BBSRC.

Our lab is now closed but collaborations continue with Wen-Chang Li at University of St Andrews and with Roman Borisyuk and Joel Tabak at University of Exeter.

Group webpage:


After a first degree in Zoology from Trinity College Cambridge where my hero was Hans Lissmann, I spent from 1963 to 1967 doing a Ph.D. on crayfish escape behaviour with Ted Bullock first in Zoology at University of California, Los Angeles and then for one year at the Scripps Institute La Jolla, at University of California, San Diego. In 1967 I returned to the UK as a Research Fellow in the Department of Zoology, University of Bristol where I worked with Brian Bush on Crab muscle receptors without impulses and started experiments on Xenopus tadpoles. On sabbatical in 1978 I worked briefly on escape behaviour of crayfish with Frank Krasne at Psychology, UCLA and of the jellyfish Aglantha with George Mackie at the Friday Harbor Labs of the University of Washington. I was appointed to a Lectureship in Bristol in 1970 and to a Personal Chair in 1991. In 2016 I was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society.

Activities / Findings

  • Development of neurons and synaptic connections in CNS networks of neurons controlling tadpole responses and swimming.
  • Identification and roles for brain and spinal cord neurons in the generation of simple behaviour.




  • neuronal networks
  • spinal cord
  • synapse
  • Xenopus
  • patch clamp
  • electrophysiology
  • interneuron
  • network modelling


  • Whole-cell patch clamp under visual control
  • single neuron morphology and reconstruction
  • neuronal network modelling
  • high-speed video



School of Biological Sciences

Other sites


Recent publications

View complete publications list in the University of Bristol publications system

Networks & contacts

  • Dr Steve Soffe
  • Biological Sciences
  • University of Bristol
    Dr Wen-Chang Li
  • Biological Sciences
  • University of St Andrews
    Professor Roman Borisyuk
  • Mathematics and Computing
  • University of Plymouth

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