Understanding how a healthy brain interprets sensory signals and guides actions, and why an unhealthy brain fails to perform these functions properly, is a profound and ambitious goal of 21st century science. Integrating knowledge of neural circuit function into a coherent picture of perception, cognition and action requires extraordinary cooperation and coordination between three research areas: experimentation, data analysis and modeling. The National Science Foundation Theory Team at Columbia University will unite exceptional resources in statistical data analysis and theoretical modeling with an extensive network of experimental collaborators to address the enormous challenges facing neuroscience. Never has the need been greater for theoretical insights and sophisticated data analysis. The field of neuroscience is facing a torrent of complex data from a system that is, itself, extraordinarily complex. Future progress requires developing the ability to extract knowledge and understanding from these data through analyses and modeling that capture the essence of what they mean. The goal of the NeuroNex Theory Team at Columbia is to establish, through the quality of its research, the excellence of its trainees, and the impact of its visitor, dissemination, and outreach programs, a new cooperative paradigm that will move neuroscience to unprecedented levels of discovery and understanding.
High-density electrode recording, wide-field calcium imaging and complex connectivity mapping are bringing neuroscience into an era of extensive multi-area and even whole-brain studies of neural activity and circuitry. The neuroscience community desperately needs new ways of interpreting data obtained from different species using myriad techniques and for thinking about neural processing over large length and time scales and across multiple brain areas. In response to these challenges, two major goals will drive and define research at the NeuroNex Theory Team at Columbia: first, integrating the analysis methods and theoretical models used to infer meaning from data with each other and with the experiments that generate these data; and second, providing analytic tools and theoretical frameworks to understand interactions between multiple brain regions and to draw important overarching lessons from experiments exploiting a variety of techniques across different species. Progress will be made through a tight integration of theoretical techniques with outstanding experimental collaborators working on a variety of systems and species. Graduate and postdoctoral training will stress technical excellence and broad perspectives in both theoretical and experimental neuroscience. Outreach will be made to other researchers through visitor and exchange programs, sponsored meetings and dissemination of research results and high-quality, user-friendly software. Outreach will be made to the broader community by sharing the excitement of neuroscience research with elementary and high school students and with the general public. This NeuroNex Theory Team award is co-funded by the Division of Emerging Frontiers within the Directorate for Biological Sciences, the Division of Physics and the Division of Mathematics within the Directorate of Mathematical and Physical Sciences, and by the Division of Brain and Cognitive Sciences within the Directorate of Social, Behavioral and Economic Sciences, as part of the BRAIN Initiative and NSF's Understanding the Brain activities.