Researchers unite in search of the “standard model” of the brain

Modeled on large physical projects, the International Brain Lab will bring together some of the world’s leading neuroscientists to study a single behavior.

Leading neuroscientists work together on research into the brain – similar to how physicists do mega-projects in search of new particles.

The International Brain Lab (IBL), launched on September 19, brings together 21 of the leading neuroscience laboratories in the US and Europe in a gigantic collaboration that will develop theories of how the brain works by relying on a Concentrated only behavior that is common to all animals: the foraging for food.

The Wellcome Trust in London and the Simons Foundation in Washington DC have jointly pledged more than $ 13 million in five years to create the IBL.

The pilot effort is an attempt to shake up cellular neuroscience, commonly conducted by individual laboratories that study the role of a limited number of brain circuits in simple behaviors.

Instead, the “virtual” IBL laboratory asks itself how a mouse brain in its entirety generates complex behaviors in constantly changing environments that correspond to natural conditions.

The project will use chips that can simultaneously record the electrical signals from thousands of neurons.

It will also take advantage of other emerging technologies such as B. Optogenetics toolkits that control neurons with light.

It is a new approach that will provide important new insights into the brain and behavior, “says Tobias Bonhoeffer, director of the Max Planck Institute for Neurobiology in Martinsried, who is also a member of the Wellcome Trust Board.

Large neuroscientific projects are not uncommon. In 2013, the European Commission announced the ten-year Human Brain Project, which will cost more than one billion euros ($ 1.1 billion).

In 2014, US President Barack Obama launched the US Brain Initiative to develop neurotechnologies, which this year is funded with 110 million dollars.

The Allen Institute for Brain Science in Seattle, Washington, has been creating comprehensive maps of brain anatomy and neural circuitry since 2003.

Japan, China, Canada and other countries also plan their major neuroscientific initiatives. But none works like the IBL, which is similar to large physical projects such as ATLAS and CMS in the European particle physics laboratory CERN, which detected the Higgs boson in 2012.

The two collaborations at CERN’s Large Hadron Collider near Geneva, Switzerland, brought together experimenters and theorists from hundreds of laboratories worldwide to test the Standard Model of particle physics.

The IBL has created a flat hierarchy and a collaborative decision-making process with almost daily web meetings like the massive CERN teams. Instead of just acting when group consensus is reached, teams make decisions based on simple consent.

Nobody will be able to stop a proposed experiment without making a convincing suggestion as to why it would be a disaster, “says Alexandre Pouget, member of the IBL and theorist at the University of Geneva in Switzerland.

So far, according to Andreas Herz, a theoretical neuroscientist at the Ludwig Maximilians University in Munich, “neuroscience is in an exploratory phase.”

The IBL aims to generate and test unifying theories about the coding and computation of information by the brain – in search of the equivalent of the physicists’ standard model.

However, the IBL is hardly unique among the major neuroscientific projects in theory and practice, emphasizing neuroanatomist Katrin Amunts from Forschungszentrum Jülich.

Amunts also chairs the Scientific Advisory Board of the European Human Brain Project. This initiative seeks to collaborate more conventionally to understand how the brain works. “The future will tell what is best,” she says.

The IBL’s principal investigators, including data analysis experts and experimental and theoretical neuroscientists, will spend around 20% of their time on it.

In the first two years, the IBL builds IT tools for the automatic data exchange and creates a reliable test protocol for a basic search for food on mice.

Members must register their experiments before they begin, and the results are instantly visible to the entire collaboration.

It’s a big challenge and it’s not the way the field works right now, “says Anne Churchland, IBL member at Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory, New York.

In experimental neuroscience, the slightest change in parameters can alter the experiment results.

The IBL standard protocol attempts to address all possible sources of variability, from how mice are fed, when and how much daylight they are exposed to, to the type of bedding they sleep on.

Each experiment is replicated in at least one separate laboratory using identical protocols before the results and data are published.

Such an approach will help solve the reproducibility crisis, “says Christof Koch, President of the Allen Institute for Brain Science.

Expanding IBL beyond the pilot phase will cost well more than $ 13 million, Pouget confirms.

Once the foraging protocol is established, the project’s second phase will test specific theories about how the brain integrates various pieces of information to make instantaneous decisions.

He also hopes to register many more laboratories and expand the range of behaviors studied.

For Herz, a theorist who is part of an influential computational neuroscience network, it is time for neuroscience to adopt such rigor.

“In a hundred years,” he says, “people will look back and wonder why it has not previously been possible to take a more physics-based approach, to design experiments to consolidate or refute theories.”

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