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Neuroscientists Join Virtual Mega-laboratory to Probe the Brain’s Deepest Secrets

Neuroscientists Join Virtual Mega-laboratory to Probe the Brain’s Deepest Secrets

To understand how billions of neurons work together to guide decision-making in a single brain, twenty-one laboratories will join forces under the umbrella of the newly-formed International Brain Laboratory (IBL) to conduct a unique joint experiment.

Among them is Ila Fiete's research group in the University of Texas at Austin's Center for Learning and Memory and Center for Theoretical and Computational Neuroscience, which will join in the effort to understand how the activity of individual neurons and the interactions between neurons shape how the brain makes choices.

Fiete is a professor in the Department of Neuroscience at UT Austin, and her group focuses on better understanding the dynamics and coding principles that underlie computation in the brain.

"I'm excited about this effort because of the opportunity to analyze how neural activity evolves across multiple brain areas simultaneously, during active decision-making," Fiete said. "This collaboration will allow us to directly test models of decision-making and gain a conceptual understanding of how different areas interact during a difficult cognitive task."

The IBL will engage researchers from Europe and the United States and bring together some of the world's leading neuroscientists in a project co-financed to the tune of $14.6 million by the Simons Foundation in the US and the Wellcome Trust in Great Britain.

"Life is a succession of choices, from the most insignificant to the most intricate," explains Alexandre Pouget, professor in the Department of Fundamental Neurosciences in the University of Geneva Faculty of Medecine, and an IBL researcher. "But unravelling 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."

Each lab will measure neuronal activity in mice faced with a very simple decision-making task, the aim being to determine how the brain functions when it makes a choice.

A visual stimulus — such as a black stripe on a white background — will appear on a screen to the left or right of the mouse. The animal then has to use its paws to turn a small steering wheel, made of Legos, to align the black stripe back to the center of the screen.

The methodology is original in that the experiment will be conducted under the same conditions in each of the IBL labs, which will then be able to measure the activity in different regions of the brain simultaneously. These identical experimental procedures help eliminate the differences that normally hinder replication of data across laboratories.

The IBL team will record the activity of several hundred neurons simultaneously, undertaking measurements in all areas of the brain at the cellular level: overall, the researchers will record activity from 5,000 to 10,000 neurons in animals performing exactly the same task.

The theoretical laboratories, including Fiete's group, will use this unprecedented dataset to develop large-scale models of the decision-making process. To do so, they will also develop innovative IT tools for collecting and processing data in a standardized manner. In this way, IBL researchers hope to establish a comprehensive theory of decision-making that will explain how each part of the brain contributes to the task.

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Wednesday, 18 October 2017

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