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New centre aims to understand how intelligence arises from brain’s circuits

23 April 2012

A new research centre opens today at Oxford University to investigate how intelligence arises in the brain from the physical interaction of nerve cells that are wired into circuits.

The Centre for Neural Circuits and Behaviour is being funded by a Strategic Award from the Wellcome Trust and the Gatsby Charitable Foundation, who are each contributing £5 million towards funding for staff, state-of-the-art equipment, and research positions for postdoctoral scientists.

Understanding the brain is one of the Wellcome Trust's key strategic challenges and, as Professor Gero Miesenböck (Director of the new centre) explains, research at the centre will help scientists answer one of the most difficult problems in biology: how groups of nerve cells work together to generate intelligent behaviour.

"We know that intelligence emerges from the interactions of nerve cells, wired together into neural circuits," he says. "By controlling neurons remotely - in other words, telling them when to fire and when to be silent - we can test how their signals underpin our actions, emotions and memories."

Professor Miesenböck will lead the centre, which currently also includes the research groups of Professor Scott Waddell and Dr Martin Booth and is expected to grow to around 60 scientists at levels from graduate students to assistant professors. Much of the work will be done in Drosophila melanogaster, the fruit fly, where physical events in nerve cells can be linked to higher brain function more easily than in other animals (in which either the behaviour is too simple or the brain structures are too complex).

Professor Miesenböck's own work is indicative of the type of research that will be carried out in the new research centre. He has pioneered a revolutionary new technique known as ‘optogenetics’ that uses flashes of light to trigger specific nerve cells to fire - a kind of optical remote control.

The researchers use genetic engineering to make small groups of neurons sensitive to light. The flash of a laser then causes the nerves to emit an electrical signal, and the subsequent behaviour of the fly can reveal the function of the remote-controlled brain circuit.

"The great advantage is that we are no longer just passive observers, as neuroscientists have been in the past. We can now influence neural circuits directly and learn so much more," explains Professor Miesenböck.

Image: A pyramidal neuron. This image was created to demonstrate data that suggest neurons can distinguish between different sequences of incoming information. Credit: Professor M Hausser/UCL, Wellcome Images.

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