Virtual Brain Lab Brings Together Leading Neuroscientists Across the World

B0010280 Healthy human brain from a young adult, tractography
Credit: Alfred Anwander, MPI-CBS. Wellcome Images
Coronal view of nerve fibres in the brain of a young healthy adult, which has been virtually sliced down a vertical axis to divide it into front and back. The brain is viewed from behind, with the left side of the brain on the left of the image. This image was created by virtually dissecting the brain using data obtained from diffusion magnetic resonance imaging (MRI). Diffusion weighted imaging is a specialised type of MRI scan which measures water diffusion in many directions in order to reconstruct the orientation of bundles of nerve fibres. Tractography is used to indirectly model these nerve fibres, which transmit information between different regions of the brain. These have been colour-coded to help distinguish between different tracts which pass close to each other. For example, fibres connecting the left and right hemispheres (red), fibres travelling from top to bottom (blue) connecting to the spinal cord, and fibres running from front to back (green) are visible here. Reconstructing these connections between different parts of the brain will aid our understanding of how the brain functions in health and disease, and could ultimately become a tool in the same way as the human genome. Width of image is approximately 165 mm.
Magnetic resonance imaging
2015 Published:  - 

Copyrighted work available under Creative Commons Attribution only licence CC BY 4.0
Healthy human brain from a young adult. Click image for full view and details. Credit: Alfred Anwander, MPI-CBS, Wellcome Images

Twenty-one leading neuroscience groups from around the world have formed a ‘virtual brain lab’ to test how the brain controls learning and decision making. The £10 million ($13.5 million) International Brain Lab brings together groups from U.K., U.S., France, Switzerland and Portugal to uncover how complex networks of brain cells support our ability to learn and make decisions.

The different groups will work together to collectively understand a single behavior in mice, a novel approach that will enable greater insight than any single lab could achieve alone. Understanding learning and decision-making is a first step to identifying the brain network dysfunctions that underlie mental health disorders.

This new initiative is funded jointly by the Simons Foundation and Wellcome, and represents the first time these scientific funders have joined forces. This project is one of several cross-lab collaborations in brain science funded by the Simons Collaboration on the Global Brain, which aims to understand of the nature, role, and mechanisms of the neural activity underlying cognition

The International Brain Lab presents a new model for neuroscience research, with investigators around the world working together, making use of an open platform for experiments, data organization and data processing to enable joined-up working between labs in different locations.

“Everything we do, and every decision we make arises from the interactions of millions of neurons spread across our brains,” said Professor Kenneth Harris, one of the researchers behind the project. “In the past, individual neuroscience labs, working largely in isolation, have focused on understanding the fine details of how single parts of the brain work. But to understand how the brain makes decisions, we have to find out how all these regions work together. This is too big of a task for any single lab. By teaming up, we aim to understand large-scale brain activity in fine detail.”

The International Brain Lab will measure brain activity in mice, to understand the sequence of steps the brain uses to make decisions, such as the best way to obtain food. Half of the researchers will carry out experiments, using identical equipment and experimental conditions, with each lab making measurements in different brain regions.

Standardised experimental procedures across all labs will allow the data they produce to be combined into a unified, powerful data set that will be unprecedented in the field of neuroscience. Scientists can then explore how activity across different brain regions comes together to direct cognition and behaviour, a cohesive approach that is possible only when labs are working closely in concert.

The other half of the group will develop new tools for analysing that data, producing large scale neural models of decision making. They will also develop freely available software tools to enable scientists to collect and process their data in a standardised way, and share the data within the collaboration and with the wider world.

“The current lack of standardisation and data sharing in systems neuroscience makes it extremely difficult to integrate data across laboratories and experiments,” explains Alexandre Pouget, a professor at the University of Geneva and a researcher involved in the International Brain Lab. “This is possibly one of the primary impediments to the development of global theories of brain functions like decision making. The International Brain Lab aims to develop and implement data sharing standards at a scale not yet attempted in neuroscience.”

Professor Anne Churchland, a researcher in the International Brain Lab from Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory, said: “We are excited by the potential of using an open and collaborative model to understand how the brain supports behaviours. We are fortunate to have brought together some truly exceptional scientists to help us tackle the challenge of neural complexity.”

Dr. Andrew Welchman, Head of Neuroscience and Mental Health at Wellcome, said: “Even the seemingly simple decisions we take for granted in everyday life involve the coordinated activity of many thousands of brain cells. A longstanding barrier in understanding the brain has been capturing and teasing apart this activity. The International Brain Lab will deploy state of the art technologies in a collaborative setting, with input from some of the leading experimental and theoretical neuroscientists on the planet. This could be transformative in helping us understand how the brain works.”

David Tank, director of the Simons Collaboration on the Global Brain and a professor at Princeton said: “We hope that the large-scale collaborative nature of the project, its emphasis on data sharing and a focus on a single behaviour will help to move the field of neuroscience forward by illustrating how many labs can seamlessly work together. Since its inception, the Simons Collaboration on the Global Brain has emphasised collaboration, open data and fusion of experimental and theoretical expertise.”

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