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Global Virtual Lab Will Solve the Secrets of the Brain, Using LEGO.

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A "world premiere” for neuroscience. The International Brain Lab (IBL) will engage researchers from Europe and the United States with the aim of understanding how the brain makes choices, from the level of the individual cells up to the coordinated activity of a network that leads to a behavioral outcome. They will achieve this by studying the activity and interactions of individual neurons across different areas of the brain, as the animal completes a decision-making task.

The IBL is a global initiative, a virtual laboratory incorporating twenty-one of the leading neuroscience labs in several countries, including the United States, Great Britain, Portugal, France and Switzerland. The division of labor is such that half of the labs will conduct the experimental work, whilst the other half will use theoretical approaches to decipher the neuronal activity during the decision-making task. With the goal of developing a functional map of neural activity in the mouse brain.

Funded by the Simons Foundation, USA, and the Wellcome Trust, UK, the initiative has secured £10.8 million (CHF 14 million, $14.5 million) in funding, in the first instance, to coordinate and conduct the experiments. This may sound like a lot of money but it is incredibly cheap when compared with previous initiatives to understand the brain, such as the Blue Brain Initiative, which has cost billions of dollars, so far.

Learn more: brain mapping initiatives

When asked ‘why there is the need for this coordinated approach?’, IBL Investigator Alexandre Pouget, Professor, Department of Fundamental Neurosciences, University of Geneva explained: “Many of the big questions we are facing in neuroscience today are too hard to tackle for a single lab. Answering these questions requires a wide range of theoretical and experimental expertise, which is not available even within a single university.” 

Simple task to understand the complex

All the experimental groups will measure the activity of neurons in different regions of the brain, whilst the mice complete a simple behavioral task. The mice will have to use a LEGO steering wheel to move a black stripe from its original position, either the left or the right, to the middle of a white screen.

As Alexandre explains: "The mouse will have to decide whether the stimulus is on the right or the left, and will convey its decision by operating the wheel."

Read more: investigating behavior

Consistent approach

The most challenging aspect of the IBL’s approach is to maintain a consistent experimental procedure between the labs. Everything in the experimental setup must be precisely replicated in each lab, or it becomes almost impossible to compare data between research groups.

In fact, all the parameters will need to be standardized: from the apparatus the mice use, to the training they receive, to the equipment the scientists use to record their data. And it is no mean feat for these to be coordinated across experimental labs, across the world.

As another IBL investigator, Zach Mainen, Professor, Champalimaud Institute for the Unknown, Lisbon, Portugal, explained: “The use of identical experimental procedures will eliminate the differences that normally hinder replication of data across laboratories. In this way, we will be able to pool data as if it were a single giant experiment, even though it is in fact distributed between two continents.”

Zach added: “The approach is a big departure for neuroscience, where it has been difficult to integrate results into a common theoretical framework due to differences in methodology and lack of motivation to share and standardize data.”

Decisions, decisions

When asked why the researchers settled on investigating decision-making in the brain, Alexandre explained: “Life is a succession of choices, from the most insignificant to the most intricate.”

Investigating the neurons, circuits and brain areas involved in decision-making is beyond the scope of one lab, and is a problem that warrants a coordinated approach to solve.

As Alexandre elaborates: “Unraveling the mechanisms that lie behind our choices is difficult, and the complexity of that task far outstrips the capacity of a single laboratory. It requires a close correlation between theory and experiments on a scale that has never before been achieved”.

The researchers plan to record the electrical activity of neurons in all areas of the brain, whilst the mouse is performing the same task, in all of the labs, to gain an unprecedented understanding of neuronal activity.

The theoretical neuroscientists can then interpret the data, shared between the IBL groups in real time, and build detailed models of decision-making in the mouse brain.

This understanding can, in turn, be used to inform human neuroscience investigations.

New directions, together

A coordinated, parallel approach is a new direction for neuroscience, but has proved successful in other areas of science, such as solving the Human Genome and in building the Large-Hadron Collider.

The IBL researchers are quick to state that this approach will never replace the research being performed in single laboratories. However, the collaborative approach of this initiative is an exciting landmark moment for neuroscience, and will undoubtedly change our understanding of the inner workings of the brain.

As Anne Churchland, a Professor at Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory, New York and a researcher in the IBL collaboration, states: “We are excited about the potential of this open and collaborative model, which will help us understand how the brain shapes behavior. It’s a unique opportunity to bring together leading scientists to meet the challenge of neural complexity.”

The 21 teams participating in the IBL project are drawn from the following laboratories and institutions:
  • Center for Theoretical Neuroscience, Columbia University Medical Center
  • Champalimaud Research, Champalimaud Centre for the Unknown
  • Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory
  • Columbia NeuroTechnology Center, Columbia University
  • Cortical Processing Laboratory, University College London 
  • Department of Basic Neuroscience, Faculty of Science, University of Geneva 
  • Department of Molecular & Cell Biology, University of California, Berkeley
  • Gatsby Computational Neuroscience Unit, University College London, UCL
  • Center for Learning and Memory, University of Texas at Austin.
  • Janelia Research Campus, Howard Hughes Medical Institute, HHMI
  • Laboratoire de Neurosciences Cognitives, Ecole Normale Supérieure de Paris
  • Neural Dynamics and Computation Lab, Stanford University
  • Princeton Neuroscience Institute
  • Sainsbury Wellcome Centre for Neural Circuits and Behaviour, UCL
  • Wolfson Institute for Biomedical Research, University College London, UCL