Mason News May 22, 2013
by Michele McDonald
Renowned neuroscientist Giorgio Ascoli is working on another complexity related to the brain — how to handle the massive amount of data researchers are creating on a near-daily basis.
The George Mason University researcher is the lead investigator on a grant from the prestigious National Academies Keck Futures Initiative that is a step toward giving researchers another tool in their work. It’s a data overload worth organizing because, as Ascoli points out, such a “knowledge base” could reveal patterns, show untapped areas for future research and cut duplication.
“You identify what you do not know,” says Ascoli, who is a University Professor in the Molecular Neuroscience Department and the founding director of the Center for Neural Informatics, Structures and Plasticity at the Krasnow Institute for Advanced Study. “You also create a map of what is known and what is not known.”
The knowledge base for brain data dovetails with the White House’s recent BRAIN Initiative. “The BRAIN Initiative is trying to do with the brain what the Human Genome Project did with genes,” Ascoli says.
Researchers are hard at work publishing scores of articles in hundreds of journals about what they know. “It’s quite another problem to extract knowledge out of the data,” Ascoli says. “Even finding the answer to one question might take you hours of work in one search engine.”
Ascoli’s team plans to use the $100,000 Keck grant as seed money to give the nascent knowledge base a boost by training people to locate and report relevant brain research. An approach similar to a massive open online course (MOOC) could be used to train and recruit data crunchers. “So instead of 20 students, all of sudden you have 7 billion,” Ascoli says. “The vision at least is to broaden the approach to the human population. If people pass the test, they potentially will be recruited.”
The first step this year is smaller. George Mason undergrads will be receiving hands-on training in how to dive into the data. “The student might say, ‘I found a piece of evidence in this journal article that says this nerve cell has this firing capacity,’” Ascoli describes. Then that piece of data is recorded in the knowledge base so other researchers can find vital information in minutes, not hours.
Ascoli expects to have a prototype at Mason this fall. In the spring, pilot testing will begin at Michigan State University. By the end of the 14-month grant, Ascoli says, “we would know how to design a MOOC.”
Other researchers involved in the Keck grant include Maryann Martone from the University of California, San Diego; Ruchi Parekh and Diek Wheeler, research fellows with George Mason’s Krasnow Institute; and Laura Symonds from Michigan State University.
Other neuroscience databases and knowledge bases are starting to come online. Neuromorpho.org started in 2006: “It’s like a gene bank for the shape of nerve cells,” Ascoli says. Another site, hippocampome.org, is in alpha testing to describe all major properties of every known neuron type in one crucial region of the rodent brain and includes links to the original scientific articles reporting the supporting evidence.
While organizing brain research data is an essential task, Ascoli’s prime focus is the hippocampus, which could hold the key to the workings of the mind and brain. The hippocampus serves as the brain’s storage and retrieval area.
“How do you remember your 18-year-old birthday? You go back through memory lane. If I put you in a brain scanner while you were remembering your birthday, your hippocampus would light up like a Christmas tree.”
It also works in the future as a “memory of intentions.” If you have to remember to pick up dry cleaning on Thursday, that information is stored in the hippocampus.
“What we hope is to understand computationally the relationship between the brain and the mind at the level of neuronal activity, starting from the hippocampus,” Ascoli says.
Write to Michele McDonald at firstname.lastname@example.org