In this Together

(November 24th, 2016) Fully understanding the brain takes the expertise and know-how of numerous labs. That's why, three scientists have called for a worldwide collaboration among neuroscientists to share ideas and data.

Tired of the secretive and isolated method of operating in the neuroscience field, Zach Mainen, based at the Champalimaud Centre for the Unknown, Portugal; Michael Häusser, from the University College London, UK; and Alexandre Pouget, from the University of Geneva, Switzerland, believe the only way forward is a worldwide, bottom-up collaborative approach to fully understand the great mysteries of the brain. “The basic reason [for this collaboration] is the enormous task and challenge that is ahead of us in neuroscience," says Pouget. "We’re trying to understand the brain and, even if we start looking at rodents, like a mouse, we're talking of an animal with 17 million neurons, and something of the order of 70 billion connections. So, absolutely staggering numbers."

In light of these figures, it's easy to realise that no single lab - no matter how good they are - can tackle this problem on their own. "We want to be able to leverage all the expertise that’s available across the world," says Pouget. "We think that what’s needed is to put in place an infrastructure that’s going to allow us to work remotely between all the best labs, no matter where they are in the world, as long as they can help with these questions."

Working in this manner is only possible, if all labs involved are willing to share their data, which the trio accepts it does not come natural to neuroscientists. "Most favour a system where you compete with everybody and we don’t expect this to disappear overnight," says Pouget, "but what we think is that there’s room for both." There's a growing need to collaborate amongst scientists in this field, as they bump into questions they cannot solve on their own. "That’s certainly what we hear when we start discussing this with our colleagues. Unlike ten years ago, people are now remarkably open to the idea of sharing and working together."

For Pouget, once the hurdle of data sharing is overcome, the key to the success is to set ambitious but reachable goals within five to ten years. As an example, the team suggests to focus on a single behaviour, like foraging. Finding food is essential for all animals and the process involves a wide range of decisions, involving where to go and how to navigate in their environment, to list just a few. "It’s ambitious and it’s going to require more than 20 labs, 50 or possibly even 100 labs, so it’s going to be a big coordination effort but that’s not out of the question."

This idea is already taking its first steps. "We're actually already talking and exploring how we can do it," says Pouget. "At this point, we sense the community is ready for it, many of the top labs are eager to actually get something like this going; it could literally take off in a year or so." According to the authors, all they have to do now is to convince funding agencies this is a valid project and they remain cautiously optimistic they will be successful.

"We’ve known for years that at some point we're going to have to collaborate," concludes Pouget. "So far, we tried to work in isolation looking at a very tiny problem but at some point we're going to have to stitch this whole thing together and that’s not going to happen until we work together."

Alex Reis


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