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Tracing the evolution of the brain

Establishment of a new nation-wide Priority Program to investigate the evolution of the nervous system
Tracing the evolution of the brain

Silies (left) and Wolf. Credits: see below

Göttingen/ Freiburg, April 12, 2018

The German Research Foundation DFG has approved a new Priority Program (PP) „Evolutionary Optimization of Neuronal Processing“. It is one of 14 programs selected out of 53 initiatives. The new programs will be funded with a total amount of € 80 million. Fred Wolf, head of the Bernstein Center for Computational Neuroscience (BCCN) Göttingen and group leader at the Max Planck Institute for Dynamics and Self-Organization, is the coordinator of the new program, which is planned to run for six years starting in 2019.

The new Priority Program is the first coordinated research program worldwide that provides a platform for elucidating basic principles of brain evolution by joining systemic and theoretical neuroscience with evolutionary and developmental biology. Chief goal of the PP is to decipher how and why the networks and algorithms of biological nervous systems have evolved. One primary approach will be to use the theory of evolution for basic research into neuronal information processing. Wolf is excited “that it is now becoming possible to analyze the performance of biological nervous systems from a stringent evolutionary perspective.” In order to reach conclusive results with regard to brain evolution, researchers will work in up to 30 different interdisciplinary projects and focus on questions such as: Do biological nervous systems reach their absolute performance limit in terms of information processing? Which genetic changes are the basis for performance optimization?

The priority program will benefit from the strong research infrastructure of the Bernstein Network Computational Neuroscience, which was established over the past decade with the financial support of the Federal Ministry of Education and Research BMBF. Andreas Herz, speaker of the Bernstein Network, is convinced that “the productive research environment provided by the Network, its graduate programs and research services will add significantly to the success of the new priority program – especially with regard to its interdisciplinary focus.“ The partners in the Bernstein Network provide international connections for the new program. International collaboration has been a prime focus from the start as the initiative was developed together with international experts and will be supported by an international scientific advisory board.

Marion Silies and Fred Wolf (both BCCN Göttingen) are the principal initiators of the program. Together with Michael Brecht, head of the BCCN Berlin, Matthias Bethge, head of the BCCN Tübingen and Joachim Wittbrodt from the Centre for Organismal Studies COS of the University of Heidelberg, they will form the program’s steering committee.

Research Background

Modern brain science started at the beginning of the 20th century and centered around scientists like Ramon y Cajal, Korbinius Brodmann and Ludwig Edinger. They belonged to the first generation to whom Darwin’s theory of evolution was part of the scientific curriculum and already they were intrigued by the question how highly developed brains could have evolved from more primitive forms.

Recent progress in neurotechnology, evolutionary biology and theoretical neuroscience can provide novel, comprehensive approaches to accessing the functionality and evolution of the brain. Today, mathematical theory and computer-based optimization is able to accurately predict optimal circuit structures and theoretical performance limits for many biological neural circuits. Experiments can simultaneously record the activity of thousands of nerve cells and map the structure of the networks with unprecedented accuracy. In the years to come, genomic data will allow the reconstruction of the evolutionary fine-tuning of the cell types in the nervous system. The new priority program “Evolutionary Optimization of Neuronal Processing” will conjoin these scientific advancements in order to grasp basic principles of brain evolution.

People

Prof. Dr. Fred Wolf
Since 2014, the physicist and neuroscientist is head of the Bernstein Center for Computational Neuroscience (BCCN) Göttingen. Apart from numerous honors, Wolf was awarded the Mathematical Neuroscience Prize in 2017, the world's most highly endowed prize for groundbreaking mathematical contributions to understanding the brain.
Wolf is the designated founding director of the new Göttingen Campus Institute Dynamics of Biological Networks, a joint venture of Göttingen University, the University Medical Centre Göttingen and the Max Planck Institute for Dynamics and Self-Organisation.
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Dr. Marion Silies
Since 2015, the neurobiologist is an Emmy Noether Independent Junior Research Group Leader at the European Neuroscience Institute in Göttingen (ENI-G). Her group focuses on the visual information processing in the brain. In 2016, she received an ERC Starting Grant. In 2017 she was awarded the Heinz Maier-Leibnitz-Prize of the German Research Foundation. In the same year, she also received the Science Award of Lower Saxony in the category ‘best young scientist’.
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Foto credits: BCCN Göttingen/ MPIDS/ Bernstein Network.