An Observatory for the (Mouse) Brain

Kayt Sukel
August 7, 2018
man with microscope and monitor

Jérôme Lecoq prepares the OpenScope rig for an experiment. Image courtesy of Allen Institute for Brain Science

Any classic Star Trek fan worth their salt can easily summon the opening line for this beloved television show: “Space, the Final Frontier…” Now, the Allen Institute for Brain Science is trying to boldly go where no man—or lab—has gone before. It has announced OpenScope, a shared experimental program inviting neuroscientists around the globe to suggest studies and reap results using the Allen Brain Observatory, a standardized in vivo two-photon calcium imaging platform that investigates mouse visual cortex at the cellular level.

The project was inspired by astronomy observatories that share expensive equipment to help further advances in the field, says Jérôme Lecoq, Ph.D., senior manager of optical physiology at the Allen Institute. He and his colleagues consulted with researchers at the W.M. Keck Observatory in Hawaii to better understand how they share resources successfully.

“Some of these different observatories—and some of the tools each use are literally billion-dollar investments—do 1,000 or more experiments per year. They offer those tools to other research groups to serve the field as a whole,” he says. “Today, a neuroscience Ph.D. student may spend three years building a cutting-edge experimental platform. It takes a lot of effort and, usually by the time you’ve built this tool, it’s time to move on to your next academic adventure. We have so much development going on in the field, but we aren’t leveraging it.”

While researchers already use publicly available data from the Allen Observatory’s internal experiments, OpenScope will enable outside investigators to propose their own projects for the platform. A scientific committee will review those proposals and, if selected, Allen Institute researchers will run the experiments and provide the data directly to the external research groups for their own analysis. Three research projects, one of which focuses on how mouse visual cortex is able to notice unusual things in the environment, have already been accepted for 2018. Lecoq hopes neuroscientists will engage–participate in projects that seek out new experimental findings and future research questions.

“That approach holds promise for how we can standardize experiments and allow individual tools to be reused for different research questions in neuroscience,” says Lecoq. “The advantage is that all of the experiments are done on the same hardware so you can compare them to each other and really build up a wealth of information. There’s a lot to gain from this approach and I hope that people will be very excited about it.”