The scientific goal of the Kavli Institute for Systems Neuroscience is to advance our understanding of neural circuits and systems. By focusing on spatial representation and memory, we expect to uncover general principles of neural network computation in the mammalian cortex.
The Kavli Institute coexists with the Centre for the Biology of Memory (CBM) but the scope of the Institute is broader and more long-term than that of the Centre. While the goal of the Institute is to understand the emergence of brain functions in any system in any species, CBM was established to decipher neural-network mechanisms of memory formation in the mammalian hippocampus and associated cortices.
CBM was established in 2002 as part of a new Centre of Excellence scheme of the Norwegian Research Council. These centres have a lifetime of 10 years, implying that CBM is wrapping up in December 2012. The Research Council decides in November 2012 whether the Kavli Institute will receive funding for another centre – the Centre for Neural Computation (CNC). The lifetime of CNC would be from 2013 to 2023.
The ambition of CBM was, and is, to understand how information is encoded, stored and used in cortical systems and microcircuits. At the time of inauguration, CBM had two principal investigators – May-Britt and Edvard Moser – in addition to a group of visiting scientists who came annually to participate in projects in the Moser lab. Seven internationally recognized American and European neuroscientists participated in the visitor program – Bruce McNaughton, Carol Barnes, Richard Morris, Alessandro Treves, Menno Witter, Randolf Menzel, and Ole Paulsen. At the time of startup, the Mosers had a small research group consisting of 4-5 graduate students and a few technicians. The Centre has a Scientific Advisory Board with Larry Squire as chairman and Erin Schuman, Terry Sejnowski and Earl Miller as members.
The Centre-of-Excellence funding from the Research Council enabled a series of breakthroughs in our understanding of neural coding in the hippocampus and the surrounding regions. The most noteworthy contribution was the discovery of grid cells in the entorhinal cortex, which provided a metric for the brain network that makes us find our way. The discovery of grid cells was succeeded by the observation of directional cells and border cells in the entorhinal microcircuit, each contributing to a distinct aspect of the representation of self-location. These studies showed also how the outputs of the entorhinal space circuit are used by memory networks in the hippocampus, and how episodic memories are separated from each other in the early stages of the hippocampal memory storage, and it was shown how development of the grid system depends on inhibitory circuits in layer II of the entorhinal cortex. The many insights were direct results of the extensive international collaboration enabled by the Centre of Excellence scheme.
In 2005, just after the discovery of the grid cells, the Centre hosted Fred Kavli and the President of the Kavli Foundation, David Auston. This visit, as well as a number of other events, led eventually to the establishment of the fifteenth Kavli Institute at NTNU in 2007 – the fourth Kavli Institute in neuroscience in the world and the first Kavli Institute in Northern Europe. During the same year, one of the visiting members of CBM, Menno Witter, accepted a full-time position at the new Kavli Institute and he moved his entire research group to Trondheim the same year. This strengthened the anatomical profile and expertise of the Kavli Institute.
The inauguration of the Kavli Institute paved the way for expansion of the research agenda. As part of the agreement with the Kavli Foundation, NTNU offered to establish two new professorships at the institute before the end of 2012, one in computational and theoretical neuroscience and one in systems-oriented molecular neuroscience. Yasser Roudi was recruited as a group leader in theoretical neuroscience in 2010 and the position in systems-oriented molecular neuroscience will be filled from January 2013.
As we are heading for the next decade, we envisage that the Kavli Institute will dig deep into the fundamental mechanisms of neural computation. This endeavor starts in the grid-cell system of the medial entorhinal cortex. Because the matrix-like firing of the grid cells is generated in the brain, far away from specific sensory inputs, grid cells provide unprecedented access to algorithms of neural coding in high-end cortices. Our ambitious goal is to use these cells as a springboard for unraveling the basic operational principles of mammalian cortex.
To extract the computational codes of the cortex, we are using state-of-the-art technologies for read-out of computation in entangled neural circuits of behaving animals. The combinatorial power of methods such as multisite high-density extracellular recording, juxta- and intracellular recording, cell type-specific transgenic interventions, optogenetics and pharmacogenetics, and high-resolution optical imaging, is enormous. This spectrum of technologies will be available via the Research Council-funded NORBRAIN infrastructure at the Kavli Institute, which with 3147 square meters of state-of-the-art lab space is one of the world’s largest assemblies of equipment for advanced neural circuit analysis. The facility was opened by the Prime Minister of Norway in February 2012.
The Kavli Institute receives funding from the Centre-of-Excellence and FRIPRO programmes of the Research Council of Norway, the Advanced Investigator scheme of the European Research Council, the FET Proactive Initiative of the European Commission’s Framework 7 ICT Programme, a FP7 ITN network, and the Louis Jeantet Foundation.