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UCL-Zurich collaboration in neuroscience: expanding our knowledge

By Kerry Milton, on 10 November 2014

UCL and the Neuroscience Center Zürich are two of the world’s leading research institutions for neuroscience, comprising over 500 research groups covering the entire spectrum from basic to clinical research. A research agreement was signed in March 2012 to strengthen the existing collaborations and foster new interactions in research and training in neuroscience.

Computer simulation of pyramidal neurons in the cerebral cortex by Michael Häusser

UCL is a global powerhouse in neuroscience and behaviour research, ranked second in the world and producing more than twice as many publications as any other European institution. There are over 400 neuroscience research groups across UCL, whose research interests span from understanding how individual components of our nerve cells work at a molecular level through to developing and testing new drugs on patients. Given the scale of research at UCL, you may wonder why there is a need to set up collaboration with another university: surely the expertise can be found ‘in-house’?

Firstly, the grand challenges that we face require knowledge and expertise from all over the world. According to EU estimates, the cost of brain diseases now exceed those of cancer, cardiovascular diseases and diabetes added together. To meet this challenge, we need stronger basic research, closer collaboration with clinical research on patients, and a greater integration of the diverse disciplines of brain research. Establishing this partnership with Zurich will allow us to bring about the application of collective expertise to some of these challenges.

Secondly, linking with another organisation will open up access to new expertise, ideas and technologies that are not available at UCL. For example, the ZNZ has a strong focus on translational research, with strength in the engineering sciences, basic neuroscience and imaging.

Thirdly, more research collaboration between institutions enables an effective coherent case to be made for public investment in research. This must still be a major priority for universities and funders to ensure sustainable funding in the future.

Two neurons of the inferior olive by Alexandre Mathy, UCL

Although smaller than UCL, the Neuroscience Center Zurich (ZNZ), which comprises the University of Zurich, the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology and five university hospitals, is one of the top European institutions for neuroscience. There are over 120 basic, clinical and applied research groups that cover the entire spectrum of neuroscience ranging from molecular and cellular processes in the brain, physiology and diseases of the nervous system, to computational modelling and psychology. Given the complementarity between the two institutions, both in research and strategic aims, and unique areas of strength, it was agreed to facilitate a partnership enabling scientific interactions to develop between the two universities. The aim of the partnership is to:

  • foster existing and new research collaborations by seed funds
  • establish honorary appointments for faculty members engaged in collaborative projects
  • organise joint training workshops
  • facilitate the shared use of technologies and technology platforms
  • seek funding, through external institutions and private funding, to support the activities and development of the partnership

The collaboration between UCL and the ZNZ has been running successfully now for two years, and has seen the institutions provide seed money to support 15 pilot studies and workshops into a variety of neuroscience-based research areas. The joint work has covered a number of disease areas, including epilepsy, mental health, multiple sclerosis, and stroke, and the use of imaging to guide neurosurgery.

Workshops have been held to explore and share knowledge on cutting-edge technologies such as how should robotics be used to aid upper limb rehabilitation after stroke, and how to map the connections between nerves in order to understand their function. Already some of this seed money has allowed researchers to apply for and be successful in securing funding for further collaborative studies.

Looking forward, we see the important benefits that maintaining the partnership will generate for our neuroscience research. We are now working closely with Zurich to secure the financial support that will allow this enterprise to continue to flourish.

Image credits: First image, computer simulation of pyramidal neurons in the cerebral cortex by Michael Häusser, UCL. Second image, two neurons of the inferior olive by Alexandre Mathy, UCL.