How the Collaboration of Top Research Institutions Will Speed Neuroscience Breakthroughs

How the Collaboration of Top Research Institutions Will Speed Neuroscience Breakthroughs

By Quinn Murphy

In a huge step towards making databases about the brain more accessible for neuroscientists, top U.S. research institutions announce their collaboration on a project that works to do just that.

The Allen Institute for Brain Science, California Institute of Technology, New York University School of Medicine, the Howard Hughes Medical Institute (HHMI) and the University of California, Berkeley (UC Berkeley) will be the first collaboration launched by “Neurodata Without Borders” – an initiative that strives to standardize data on an international scale, thus making this data more easily shared worldwide.

The pilot program, which will initially last for one year, will focus on cell-based neurophysiology data – a subset of data which theorists seek to use in their work of building models of how the brain works. The partners in the program with will together with software developers and vendors to create an open format that stores electrical and optical recordings of neural activity. Furthermore, the conditions under which an experiment was performed – subject behavior, method of recording, species, sex and age, etc. – will also be stored. Often lost, these “metadata” are essentially to making research results meaningful.

Friedrich Sommer, a theoretical neuroscientist at UC Berkeley who oversees (where the datasets of “Neurodata Without Borders will be stored), says this “metadata problem” poses an enormous challenge.

According to Sommer, once a formatis selected, datasets will be translated into the new “language” and shared through Finally, “application programming interfaces,” or APIs, will be developed, allowing researchers to use the format for their own data.
Neurodata Without Borders is also calling on the neuroscience community to get involved.

“We want to solicit the best ideas for the data format, so we are inviting researchers to look at the datasets which are now shared in their current format. Our hope is to engage the community to contribute ideas or propose their own data format for consideration,” said Sommer.

Christof Koch, Chief Scientific Officer at the Allen Institute, describes this program as “an effort to help us speak the same language.”

“Neuroscientists aren’t limited by memory storage anymore; we’re limited by our ingenuity, the availability of data and our ability to talk to each other,” said Koch.

A common data format in neuroscience is of urgent nature in the light of the rise of large-scale collaborative projects, such as the Brain Research through Advancing Innovative Neurotechnologies (BRAIN) Initiative in the United States.

“These new initiatives are going to produce masses of data, but if it isn’t interchangeable and comparable, it’s just not going to be useful,” said Koch.

Scientific publishers and granting agencies, such as the U.S. National Institutes of Health, are also on board with the standardization, and are moving toward mandating data sharing as a requirement for funding.

“This is following on other efforts at openness in science,” says Markus Meister, a professor of biology at Caltech whose research group is supplying experimental data to the project. “The idea is that the material or resources that were developed with the government funding or published in a journal have to be made available.”

Executive Vice President of Science Programs of The Kavli Foundation, Miyoung Chun, agrees. “In neuroscience, as in many scientific fields, there are massive amounts of ‘Big Data’ but no coherent way to retrieve and use this information. Our hope is Neurodata Without Borders: Neurophysiology is a major step towards changing this and speeding breakthroughs in science.”

Field(s) Neuroscience, Research, Collaboration, Neurophysiology, Data
Further Information “Top U.S. research institutions announce major neuroscience collaboration”

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