A vision for multidisciplinary research
By news editor, on 6 July 2012
In the second of a series of blog posts about the UCL Neuroscience Symposium 2012, held on Friday 29 June, Ivan Alvarez Ferreira (UCL Institute of Child Health) and Joseph Jebelli (UCL Institute of Neurology) write about the presentations and topics that were their personal highlights.
For a long time, I have been fascinated by the visual system – that is, how do two eyes and a few billion neurons give rise to the richness of our visual conscious perception?
After a few years at university and deciding to take the plunge into graduate research, this question slowly evolved into how can we know the inner workings of the visual system? With this question in mind, I headed down to the symposium in search of an answer.
Neuroscience is a fundamentally interdisciplinary endeavour, from the petri dish experiment in microbiology to drug discovery for dementia, it spans multiple fields as well as multiple scales and sizes. For such a fundamental question, there are answers at every level.
Starting with the very small, I was captivated by a talk by Dr Tom Mrsic-Flogel (UCL Neuroscience, Physiology & Pharmacology) who began by showing this video of neurons firing in beautiful patterns while experiencing visual stimulation, such as watching a movie.
Intuitively, we might say that is all there is to it; a number of cells connected to each other and firing in regular patterns to encode what our eyes are perceiving. This raises an intriguing question: are these connections intrinsic, somehow built into our bodies? Or, is it a result of a free-for-all contest?
To answer this, Dr Mrsic-Flogel showed how we can track the development of neurons in the visual cortex of mice, revealing that signals from our eyes seem to follow pre-determined paths to specific neurons in the brain. But how these neurons wire with each other is relatively variable in comparison.
So far, so good. But how to get a grasp of the big picture? How do these billions of neurons interact to form our visual world?
To understand a complex problem, we can start with a simpler one. According to Professor Peter Latham (Gatsby Computational Neuroscience Unit at UCL): “Vision is a hard problem, but olfaction is a not-so-hard problem”.
The idea is straightforward; if we find any overarching organising principles in one sensory systems, it is likely to apply to other systems as well. In the case of olfaction, evidence suggests it is organised as a probabilistic matching system – for any given input, what is the most likely match in our list of known smells? By producing general models of system organisation we understand not the specific, but the building blocks which form the circuitry of the brain.
One of the big challenges facing neuroscience is how to deal with ‘big data’. The tons and tons of terabytes produced by computerised research methods are hard to crack since they require vast amounts of manual work by trained researchers. Increasingly, non-traditional approaches seem to offer valuable solutions, such as computer-aided approaches and crowd-sourcing e.g. the EyeWire project.
Going from cells, to systems, to big data our understanding of vision is tightly interlinked; not only to improve our knowledge but also in the quest for translational research and practical applications.
Two fascinating posters by Dr Daniel Kelbman and Emma Webb (UCL Institute of Child Health) showcased how research is moving towards a truly translational model. The first presented a new method for identifying genetic markers associated with severe visual impairment during childhood and the second outlined a study where behavioural problems in children suffering from underdevelopment of the optic nerve (hypoplasia) are linked to white matter abnormalities in the brain picked up by novel MRI techniques.
From molecules and cells, to systems and applications, it is clear that there are many answers to my original question. Our understanding of the visual system has grown radically since the advent of modern neuroscience – no explanation of the brain would be complete without accounting for the complexity of levels at which it can be described, and vision is no exception.
During my undergraduate days, the response given by mylecturer and mentor, Dr Mike Gilder, when I told him I wanted to pursue research into neurodegenerative disease at UCL, was:“Only there will your eyes truly be opened to the world of research.”
As I approach the final year of my PhD, surrounded by mounting piles of journals couple with the unrelenting stress of collecting enough data to pass, I often forget why these words remain so fresh in my mind to this day.
After attending this year’s symposium, however, it comes vividly back into focus. The sheer breadth and variety of cutting-edge research behind some of the most devastating neurological disorders breathes new life into everyone’s personal reasons for entering the field in the first place.
One of the speakers, Professor Dimitri Kullmann (UCL institute of Neurology), gave a captivating talk about the latest in gene therapy for epilepsy. By genetically engineering the brain to increase its production of the protein Kv1.1, a molecule known to have crucial roles in controlling the innate electrical excitability of nerve cells, Kullmann’s team have shown they can essentially ‘switch off’ the seizures which are so characteristic of the disease. “A major challenge is understanding how a seizure evolves, and how early we can intervene and stop the seizure from evolving,” he explained.
Another thought-provoking talk was given by Professor Trevor Smart (Chair of the UCL Neuroscience Domain) on the molecular biology of GABA receptor proteins in health and disease. Focusing primarily on anxiety, he demonstrated how neurosteroids delivered to the brain can have hugely beneficial impacts by interacting directly with GABA receptors. He also pointed out that these proteins have wide-ranging implications for other neurological diseases.
Alongside the talks, this year’s poster sessions certainly did not fail to impress, with a plethora of eager young researchers showcasing their contribution to the fight against a host of nervous system disorders, including Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, Huntington’s, and Amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS) .
Altogether, whilst it appears much more work is needed to effectively combat the different maladies of the brain, today’s symposium is a stark reminder that neuroscience at UCL remains irrefutably on the frontline of research. As Professor Alan Thompson, Dean of the UCL Faculty of Brain Sciences, puts it:
“UCL is poised to make a major contribution to furthering our understanding and treatment of neurodegenerative disorders. The combination of excellent basic neuroscience, imaging biomarkers, the recent funding from NIHR for a Biomedical Research Unit in Dementia and the Wolfson award for an Experimental Neuroscience Centre places us in a unique position to have a significant impact on this area, which is so critically important for society today.”