NERF - where biotech and micro-electronics meet

14 December 2012

​In 2009 IMEC, KU Leuven and VIB set up a joint basic research initiative Neuro-Electronics Research Flanders (NERF) whose main mission is to unravel the function of brain circuits. With the addition of the new group leaders Sebastian Haesler and Karl Farrow in the coming months, all 5 group leader positions have been filled and NERF will be complete. We chatted with Emre Yaksi, Vincent Bonin and Fabian Kloosterman about what makes NERF a special place and where it will go in the future.

What made you join NERF?
Emre: My passion is trying to understand how the brain works. And that is NERF’s mission. In our website it clearly states that: ”…the mission of NERF is to develop and use novel technologies to study and understand the function of brain circuits.”. That is a very attractive assignment. Our major focus right now is to understand how the complex interactions in neural circuits are linked to the rich behaviour that we can observe in our model systems. At a later stage we want to apply this knowledge to understand the functional causes of neurological diseases and contribute to development of potential cures.

Vincent: Other aspects that were very attractive are the VIB model, IMEC and KU Leuven as founding partners, and the Scientific Advisory Board. VIB has been very successful at recruiting foreign researchers to Belgium. The participation of IMEC and KU Leuven made NERF a truly unique opportunity. The Scientific Advisor Board is composed of leaders in my field, which brings a lot confidence to the enterprise.

NERF is located at the IMEC Campus in Leuven. Why here?
Emre: Technology development is an important part of our mission. We are located on the microelectronics campus of IMEC. Here, we have access to a Clean Room that develops nano-scale electronic circuits and produces neuro-probes that can record and perturb brain circuits with a resolution and scale that is not possible elsewhere. We are using these probes to read out brain activity in living and behaving animals. Moreover we use functional imaging methods to record the activity of thousands of neurons simultaneously. This exhaustive data set is a big challenge to work with and just like molecular biologists are applying omics technology to genes, we are applying systems neuroscience tools to neural data. That is the essence of our work. Moreover, Leuven is a major hub for excellent research on neurological diseases. For example, people all over the world working in the field of neurodegenerative diseases know the names and departments of Peter Carmeliet and Bart De Strooper.

Fabian: One of the hopes we have for NERF is to link the neuroscience research in Leuven and to establish interactions with the many groups that are interested in the biology and neurotechnology development. There is a large neuroscience community in Leuven and we bring our own unique expertise to the mix. Also, we are not just group leaders at NERF but also part-time professors at KU Leuven. The three of us already represent NERF in each of the three major departments of the university – Science & Technology, Biomedical Science, and Humanities & Psychology.

So collaborating with other groups is important?
Emre: Absolutely. Although our primary focus is on healthy brains, we are also interested in collaborations with groups working on neurological diseases. We want to share our expertise in systems neuroscience with these groups to study the functional changes in diseased brains. This approach will certainly generate fruitful interactions and synergy. It is certain that we will be more productive together than the mere sum of individual groups. Right now we at NERF are in an exploratory phase. We have a lot of energy to try new things and test the limits of our approaches, realizing that failing can also lead to learning. For instance we just started looking at the interaction of cardiovascular dynamics and brain physiology. Our kind of approach for studying neural circuits is rather new in Belgium. Should someone be interested in doing this kind of research, we are right here to help.

Aren’t you also working with the VIB Center for the Biology of Disease on a new initiative for PhD students?
Vincent: Indeed, we are. Building on top of existing doctoral programs at KU Leuven, we have teamed up with the department of Bart De Strooper to provide synergistic training to all our students. We hope to establish a rich and nurturing environment that fosters interactions between students, as well as a forum for them to discuss how they could use different tools from different disciplines for their research. The expertise at NERF and VIB11 are highly complementary. In this way we can give our students the best possible training and also a broader view.

Emre: Training is important, but attention is also being paid to developing soft skills and networking. We give the students feedback, but we also expect them to give each other feedback. We hope that as people get to know each other, they will start to talk science with each other and collaborate. This is a very smart initiative supported by Bart De Strooper and spear headed by An Zwijsen. This is the most natural way of seeding the interactions between NERF and the VIB Center for the Biology of Disease.

Vincent: This is also a way to expose VIB students to the great R&D work done at IMEC. And for most students who come here, it is their first time at IMEC. The R&D model at IMEC is completely different from the academic R&D model. It is good that students see what other research is going on in Leuven and how it is done.

Where do you see Nerf 10 years from now?
Vincent: Our ultimate goal is to measure activity from large networks of brain cells while the animal is going about its business and performing tasks. We want to unravel the rules for when neurons fire in relation to behavior, and want to understand how these rules are implemented at the level of anatomical connections between neurons. If we are successful in our respective programs, we will have uncovered some of those rules and circuits.

That is the biology part. The other part is about how we address the biological questions. Our goal is to develop novel approaches to access neural circuits during behaviours. If in 10 years we have programs for which we have developed new tools or approaches, I think we will have succeeded.

Emre: It is really difficult to know what we will deliver in ten years. We are in the process of finding a sort of niche within the scientific community. We are exploring uncharted territories of neuroscience. And one of the advantages of Leuven is that there is a lot of other neuro-research going on that gets you thinking about questions which otherwise might not cross your mind, such as Fabian’s project on closed-loop systems – devices that can record and process neural activity very fast and feed it back to any device, whether it is a brain or a computer. Neuroprostethics are an obvious application of these systems, as they would allow a person to control devices like a cursor on the screen, or a robotic arm. If you don’t do the experiment you will never find out whether it could work. And if you ask me now whether this will be a reality in ten years, the answer is that I don’t know. It is difficult to put a timeline on such things.

The most important challenge now is to create an environment that will foster great science and the development of next-generation technologies to do even better science. We will be successful if people know our name because of our excellent science and the new technologies we developed – if NERF becomes a synonym for innovations. Right now, we are all focused on developing NERF into an excellent neuroscience institute.

Since NERF doesn’t have a general manager, how will it be managed? 
Fabian: The usual model is to have a director who builds up the institute. None of us are in a stage of our careers where we could be director of NERF. So the decision was made to divide the workload and have NERF managed by a committee consisting of all the group leaders. It was difficult for all of us to agree on this model, since we will have to use some of the time we could otherwise use for our science. But it has advantages, too. NERF is very young and we will be able to shape it the way we want. It is a challenging model, the success of which we will only be able to evaluate in 10 years.

Vincent: Since NERF is small, there is less need for a top-down approach, anyway. It is just the three of us and the two group leaders that will be arriving. Everybody is very committed and open hearted. We’ll try to give everyone equal responsibility, but we do need a face for the organization, a spokesperson. That is why the group leaders will take turns every 18 months to be the primus inter pares. Until now NERF has been run with the help of Staf Borghs (IMEC) as NERF coordinator. He is on his way to retirement and there will be a transition phase to the new management model.


Register now for the NERF symposium on 22-23/04/13 in Leuven


The 5 NERF PI's together with the Scientific Advisory Board.

Top (left to right): Jo Bury, Karl Farrow, Patrick Wolf, Liqun Luo, Sebastian Haesler, Stephen De Weerth, Karel Svoboda, Gilles Laurent
Bottom (left to right): Christof Koch, Fabian Kloosterman, Vincent Bonin, Emre Yaksi

© VIB, 2013

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