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Office hours: 5229 BI
Mon 12-1, Wed 11-12
Participation points will
be collected through Mar 1.
answer key
Average score: 21.8/32
High score: 32/32

Brain, Behavior & Info Processing

MCB 419 Syllabus

Course title: Brain, Behavior & Information Processing
Cross-listings: BIOP 419, NEUR 419
Format: Two 80-minute lecture/lab sessions per week
Credit: 3 hours (undergrad and grad)
Prerequisites: Introductory courses in physics, biology, calculus and previous programming experience, or consent of instructor.
Email: mcb419 at OR m-nelson at


This course explores the neural basis of animal behavior. The emphasis is on the information processing problems that animals face in natural environments and how nervous systems have evolved to solve these problems. The course emphasizes computer modeling and simulation as tools for exploring principles of nervous system design and function. Current literature in computational neurobiology and neuroethology will be incorporated in readings and class discussion.

Outline of course content

  1. introduction: brain, behavior and information processing
  2. evolutionary perspectives on behavior
  3. emergence of life, life at small scale
  4. behavior without a nervous system: unicellular organisms
  5. energy/mass acquisition, kinesis, taxis
  6. evolution of nervous systems, predator-prey arms race
  7. sensory information processing, information theory
  8. effecting change: movement and control
  9. coupling sensation and action
  10. coupled dynamics of brain, body and environment
  11. spatial cognition
  12. learning from experience
  13. communication, social interactions
  14. anticipation, planning
  15. advanced topics (emotions, language, consciousness, ...)


Reading material is drawn from a variety of sources, including book chapters, review articless, journal articles and conference proceedings. There is no required text.


Most of the time in the classroom will be spent doing HANDS-ON computer modeling and simulation taks, both individually and working collaboratively in small groups. You will need to bring a laptop with you to every class. You are expected to do preperatory work BEFORE COMING TO CLASS. This may include completing assigned readings, watching video lectures, reviewing powerpoint slides, and doing simple programming exercises at home.

Evaluation and Grading

Your grade is based on a combination of class participation, preparation, programming assignments, quizzes, exams and a final project.

Class participation/preparation (20%): You are expected to attend class regularly, be prepared, and be on time. To reinforce these expectations, there will be in-class programming tasks, group exercises, other activities that will be logged and count toward your participation/preparation grade at the end of the semester.

Weekly Assignments (40%): Starting in week 3, there will be ten weekly programming assignments. These are graded on a 4-point scale. Each assignment will list its due date. Most will be due Tuesdays at 9 pm. Each student will have a total of four (4) “free” late days (a late day is 24 hours of lateness). There are no partial days, so assignments are either on time, 1 day late, 2 days late, etc. Once the four free late days are used up, each successive late day will result in a loss of 1 point.

Quizzes and Exams (20%): Quizzes will be given 2-3 times throughout the semester and a midterm will be given before spring break. The quizzes and midterm reinforce learning and retention of concepts and content covered in readings, lectures, and programming assignments. There is no final exam, instead there is a final project.

Final project (20%): A final modeling project will integrate conceptual principles and programming techniques, with emphasis on neural-inspired mechanisms of learning and adaptation. Points will be assigned based on the quality of the project, an in-class oral presentation, and peer evaluations.

Final grade: Your final grade is based on a weighted sum of the above components. Scoring in the top 33% of the class guarantees an A (includes A+, A, A-); scoring in the top 66% guarantees a B (includes B+, B, B-). The actual fraction of As and Bs awarded may be higher, but this is a guaranteed minimum.

Mark E. Nelson, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, 2005-2016.