BRAIN Initiative to Fund First Decoding of a Key Brain Circuit in Mammals

KIBS Investigator Allia Losonczy receives a BRAIN Initiative grant to study the connections that makes long-term memories

Over the next three years, a team of researchers will chart the complex connections between brain cells that allow us to make and retrieve lasting memories. That process, called consolidation, hinges on the brain’s ability to replay stored memories.

The project represents the first attempt to build a complete computational model of a neural network in vertebrates using experimental data. It received $1.95 million for three years in funding this month in the first wave of grants to be awarded under President Obama’s Brain Research through Advancing Innovative Neurotechnologies (BRAIN) Initiative, which seeks to revolutionize our understanding of the human brain.

“A major goal in neuroscience is to understand how networks of brain cells produce cognitive functions, such as memory,” said Attila Losonczy, MD, PhD, from the Kavli Institute for Brain Science at Columbia University. "That is a difficult enterprise. Even the simplest networks contain an abundance of cell types, each with particular properties. How then can one understand the emergent properties of these cells and their connections?”

In an interview, Losonczy — who is also a member of Columbia's Zuckerman Mind Brain Behavior Institute — described phenomena called sharp-wave-ripples, bursts of electrical activity that replay stored memories and make them last. They are especially prominent when we sleep. The wave-ripples are generated by networks of cells in the CA3 region of the hippocampus, the part of the brain where memories of recent events, or episodic memories, are formed. The key question the research team wants to answer, said Losonczy, is how?

Losonczy expects studying the cells that make up the replay circuit, their connections and their functional properties will yield “transformative insights” into how the concerted activity of neurons gives rise to the remarkable mental abilities of the mammalian brain.

He also called being part of the BRAIN Initiative “is a great privilege,” not just for the study’s leaders but for the students who will conducting the research. “They will also see how the BRAIN Initiative’s global aim of ‘understanding the brain’ really materializes.”

The newly funded project is titled “Towards a complete description of the circuitry underlying memory replay,” and is a collaboration between Ivan Soltesz (University of California, Irvine), Gyorgy Buzsaki (New York University), John Lisman (Brandeis University) and Losonczy.

To learn more, listen to a Kavli Foundation Q&A with Attila Losonczy