In an effort to advance scientists’ mechanistic understanding of brain functioning, the Simons Foundation launched the Simons Collaboration on the Global Brain (SCGB) on July 1, 2014.
Neuroscience research has historically focused on how sensory stimuli are detected in the brain and how movements of the body are generated as a response. But much of what goes on in the brain occurs in a domain between stimulus and response, in the form of decisions, motivations, thoughts and judgments — processes considered to take place in the ‘internal brain.’ A primary goal of the SCGB is to uncover and decipher the way networks of neurons in the brain contribute to these processes.
The launch of the collaboration comes at a time when research tools have undergone dramatic advances. “The advent of methods to record from multiple neurons — rather than a single neuron — at one time provides an unprecedented ability to monitor the brain in action,” says David W. Tank, director of the SCGB. “Complementary new tools to stimulate or suppress patterns of neural activity in the active brain allow investigators to test the involvement of specific neural circuits in behavior. It is expected that these advances in neuroscience technology will now allow investigators to uncover the mechanisms of planned behavior, thoughts and motivations.”
In studying the workings of the internal brain, researchers hope to find general principles that emerge even when the brain is computing different things — for example, computations within the internal brain that contribute to decision-making, regardless of the what the decision is.
“My feeling is that when we understand these common processes, we’ll have a better feeling not only for the normal internal brain, but also for abnormal brain functioning in disorders like schizophrenia and autism,” says Gerald Fischbach, chief scientific officer and fellow of the Simons Foundation.
The SCGB is currently funding 37 projects, many of which have multiple investigators. The collaboration’s investigators fall into two main groups: experimentalists and theorists. The SCGB experimentalists hail from backgrounds ranging from the study of how worms make decisions to move, to the neurobiology of memory in primates. The theorists work in many of the same fields as the experimentalists, but apply their expertise to analysis, modeling and abstraction of the data provided by the experimentalists.
The two groups work together on common projects in complementary ways. Theorists often provide mathematical and computational approaches that help experimentalists understand their data. In addition, theorists provide models and theories of how internal states occur, which experimentalists use to drive their experimental approaches.
“One of the exciting things about this project is the multidisciplinary aspect of it,” says Alyssa Picchini Schaffer, scientific officer for the SCGB. “We’re bringing together scientists from across fields to work on problems that are fundamental to understanding the brain.”
In the coming months, the SCBG will launch a postdoc program for early-career scientists, initiate regional meetings to facilitate collaboration across research areas, and bring additional investigators into the collaboration.
“We have a great group of people and now the challenge is how to get them to interact and help each other using the resources of this new collaboration to advantage,” says Fischbach.