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Europe gets centre of excellence for neuroscience

University College London will play host to £140-million institute.

UCL: the nerve centre of neuroscience? Credit: UCL

An ambitious 'Janelia Farm-style' neuroscience institute to lead international efforts in understanding the brain and behaviour at the level of basic neural circuits is being planned for London.

University College London (UCL) will host the new centre, after beating rival universities Oxford and Cambridge, Nature has learned. The £140-million (US$261-million) institute will be funded by the Wellcome Trust, the largest UK research charity, and the Gatsby Charitable Foundation, founded by David Sainsbury, a British politician and businessman. The individuals involved declined to comment, but Richard Morris, head of neuroscience at the Wellcome Trust, says no decision has been made.

The aim of the centre will be to "elucidate how neural circuits carry out information processing that underpins behaviour", according to the charities' letter to the universities competing for the project, sent earlier this year. The institute will take an interdisciplinary approach, combining state-of-the-art molecular and cellular biology with computational modelling.

UCL may have beaten competitors because its 400-strong neuroscience department is one of the most productive in the country. And it already has a world-class computational neuroscience centre, also funded by the Gatsby foundation.

The institute will reportedly work mainly with model organisms such as mice, fruitflies and nematodes. It will employ newly developed techniques such as optogenetics, which allows researchers to switch genetically modified neurons on and off using light. It is believed that the institute will eventually host some 12–15 research groups at a new £60-million building on Huntley Street in Bloomsbury, near both the Wellcome Trust and UCL's central campus.

The research at the new institute will focus on topics "we're all interested in at the moment", says Wolf Singer, a director at the Max Planck Institute for Brain Research in Frankfurt, Germany. Last month, two German pharmaceutical entrepreneurs, Andreas and Thomas Strüngmann, donated €200 million (US$295 million) for a new Max Planck cognitive neuroscience research centre in Frankfurt (see _Nature_ 454, 381; 2008). European research institutes have primarily been government funded — the involvement of donors such as Sainsbury and the Strüngmanns will help Europe compete better with America, Singer says.

The size and approach of the London project has led many neuroscientists to compare it to Janelia Farm, a biological institute in Ashburn, Virginia, that is funded by the Howard Hughes Medical Institute. Since opening in 2006, the institute has taken an interdisciplinary approach to imaging and modelling neural circuits. The new UCL institute "sounds like Janelia East", says Karel Svoboda, a neuroscientist at Janelia. "That is not necessarily a bad thing," he adds.

Others are concerned that the London institute should distinguish itself from other interdisciplinary centres that are proliferating in this field. "It will be important for the new institute to choose its subject areas carefully to avoid duplication," says Colin Blakemore, a neurobiologist at the University of Oxford.

Svoboda agrees, but says that its central London location and affiliation with a major research university should give a distinctly different character from Janelia Farm. And a Janelia-style centre does not yet exist in Europe, he says. "If organized in the right way, it could really attract fantastic talent."

The institute could be built by 2011.

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Brumfiel, G. Europe gets centre of excellence for neuroscience. Nature (2008). https://doi.org/10.1038/454922b

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