London: How does intelligence arise in our brains from the way nerve cells, with no intelligence of their own, are wired into circuits?
A new 15 million pounds research centre, called the Centre for Neural Circuits and Behaviour, is to be established at Oxford University to investigate this key question.
Professor Gero Miesenbock, who will be the director of the new centre, said: "Understanding how groups of nerve cells work together to generate intelligent behaviour remains one of the most difficult problems in biology. If we could watch the neurons communicate, we could deduce how brain circuits are laid out and how they work.
And if we could control neurons remotely ? tell them when to fire and when to be silent ? we could test how their signals underpin our actions, emotions and memories."
The latest genetic techniques and imaging technologies in neuroscience are beginning to allow researchers to do this, and the Oxford centre will be at the forefront of this new field.
The new centre represents a significant investment and will house around 60 scientists at levels from graduate students to assistant professors and established research group heads, most of whom will be newly recruited.
Work will concentrate on fruit flies, zebrafish and mice, all animal models where new findings relevant for human health and wellbeing can be established, a university release said.
"Our intention is to assemble a stellar team of neuroscientists working in a single building in Oxford to tackle this problem," Professor Miesenbock said.
Professor Miesenbock`s work is indicative of the type of research that will be carried out in the new research centre.
He has pioneered a revolutionary new method that uses flashes of light to trigger specific nerve cells in the brains of fruit flies to fire ? a kind of optical remote control.
Genetic engineering is used 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," explained Professor Miesenbock.