The Gravitation Grants, awarded by the Dutch Research Council (NWO) , are intended for fundamental research. Findings from fundamental research enable the facilitation of applied science, industrial applications, and clinical therapies.
The challenge of neural interfaces
The Dutch Brain Interface Initiative will delve into fundamental neuroscience challenges surrounding the development of effective neurotechnology. Despite decades of neuroscience research, mechanisms in brain remain shrouded in mystery and fundamental understanding of these mechanisms will lead to effective clinical implants and therapies.
We want to gain insight into the interaction between the cerebral cortex and the cerebellum’, explains De Zeeuw. ‘In the cerebral cortex, conscious thought processes take place whereas the cerebellum has been implicated in unconscious processes, such as control of the reflexes. Both of these structures can influence each other and are connected but exactly how they work together remains unknown.’
With insights uncovered from these investigations, scientists hope to better understand complex brain disorders such as epilepsy, motor coordination disorders, schizophrenia, dyslexia, ADHD but also obsessive-compulsive disorders.
With artificial intelligence and computational models we will learn to identify prodromes, which are signals that precede a clinical event, such as an epileptic seizure or another disorder in the brain. If we can recognize patterns in these prodromes, we will eventually be able to predict the onset of diseases, clinical events, and symptoms.’
Shining a light
To visualize the interaction between brain cells and neurons in these regions, De Zeeuw, Narain and Strydis will examine neural function using a recent technique called optogenetics. This technique uses the expression of light-sensitive genes in neurons to make them more or less active in the presence of light.
‘Then they can turn those cells on or off by shining light of a certain wavelength on them. This makes it possible to influence not only the activity of these neurons, but also the behavior of the entire organism. This gives researchers an insight into how neurons work and the networks that are responsible for a particular behavior and/or dysfunction,’ explains De Zeeuw.
Scientists have a pretty good grasp of the interaction between different types of brain cells, says De Zeeuw. We can now treat blindness to a reasonable extent by mimicking visual stimuli and sending them to the visual cortex. Those who have learned to see in the past can then regain some part of their vision.’
Sensation vs. perception
But seeing is more than just perceiving something. ‘Seeing also involves the associative and frontal cortexes. They make sure that if I see you, I recognize you when I see you on the street. How this cooperation between the brain cells works is something we want to learn more about.
Radboud University is the main applicant of The Dutch Brain Interfaces Initiative. The project is led by Prof. Francesco Battaglia, Professor of Neuroinformatics. In total, the Ministry of Education, Culture and Science has allocated more than 142 million euros for 7 consortia that will carry out fundamental research.
Prof. Chris de Zeeuw is head of Neuroscience at Erasmus MC.