How does the brain function, from molecules to cells to circuits to
brain systems to behavior? How are all these levels of complexity
integrated to ultimately allow consciousness to emerge in the human
In a Comment in this week's Edition of the journal Nature
an international trio of neuroscientists outlines a concrete proposal
for jump-starting a new, bottom-up, collaborative "big science" approach
to neuroscience research, which they consider crucial to tackle the
still unsolved great mysteries of the brain.
‘The communication technology is available, for teams from different labs and different countries to join efforts and apply new forms of grassroots collaborative research in brain science.’
The time is ripe, the communication technology is available, for
teams from different labs and different countries to join efforts and
apply new forms of grassroots collaborative research in brain science.
This is the right way to gradually upscale the study of the brain so as
to usher it into the era of Big Science, claim neuroscientists in
Portugal, Switzerland and the United Kingdom. And they are already
putting ideas into action.
The plan now proposed by Zach Mainen, director of research at the
Champalimaud Center for the Unknown, in Lisbon, Portugal; Michael
Häusser, professor of Neuroscience at University College London, United
Kingdom; and Alexandre Pouget, professor of neuroscience at the
University of Geneva, Switzerland, is inspired by the way particle
physics teams nowadays mount their huge accelerator experiments to
discover new subatomic particles and ultimately to understand the
evolution of the Universe.
"Some very large physics collaborations have precise goals and are
self-organized", says Zach Mainen. More specifically, his model is the
ATLAS experiment at the European Laboratory of Particle Physics (CERN,
near Geneva), which includes nearly 3,000 scientists from tens of
countries and was able (together with its "sister" experiment, CMS) to
announce the discovery of the long-sought Higgs boson in July 2012.
Although the size of the teams involved in neuroscience may not be
nearly comparable to the CERN teams, the collaborative principles should
be very similar, according to Zach Mainen. "What we propose is very
much in the physics style, a kind of 'Grand Unified Theory' of brain
research, he says. "Can we do it? Clearly, it's not going to happen
within five years, but we do have theories that need to be tested, and
the underlying principles of how to do it will be much the same as in
To help push neuroscience research to take the leap into the future,
the three neuroscientists propose some simple principles, at least in
theory: "focus on a single brain function"; "combine experimentalists
and theorists"; "standardize tools and methods"; "share data"; "assign
credit in new ways". And one of the fundamental premises to make this
possible is to "engender a sphere of trust within which it is safe [to
share] data, resources and plans", they write.
Needless to say, the harsh competitiveness of the field is not a
fertile ground for this type of "deep" collaborative effort. But the
authors themselves are already putting into practice the principles they
advocate in their article.
"We have a group of 20 researchers (10 theorists and 10
experimentalists), about half in the US and half in the UK, Switzerland
and Portugal" says Zach Mainen. The group will focus on only one
well-defined goal: the foraging behavior for food and water resources in
the mouse, recording activity from as much of the brain as possible -
at least several dozen brain areas.
"By collaboration, we don't mean business as usual; we really mean
it", concludes Zach Mainen. "We'll have 10 labs doing the same
experiments, with the same gear, the same computer programs. The data we
will obtain will go into the cloud and be shared by the 20 labs. It'll
be almost as a global lab, except it will be distributed