The Centre for Neural Circuits and Behaviour (CNCB) is an autonomous research centre embedded in the stimulating world of the University of Oxford. It is supported by a Strategic Award from the Wellcome Trust and the Gatsby Charitable Foundation.
The aim of the CNCB is to understand how intelligence emerges from the physical interaction of nerve cells.
‘The cell is the fundamental unit of life. The neural cell is the fundamental unit of intelligence, memory and consciousness, but we won’t understand any of these evolved abilities until we work out how neurons act together, and how circuits of neurons are integrated together.’ Eric Kandel
We address this problem by studying the brain from the top down rather than from the bottom up: we reason from behaviour to cellular and molecular mechanisms. Much of our research is done in fruit flies, where physical events in nerve cells can be linked to higher brain function more easily than in other animals, in which either the behaviour is too simple or the brain structures are too complex.
‘… there may be extraordinary mental activity within an extremely small absolute mass of nervous matter: thus the wonderfully diversified instincts, mental powers, and affections of ants are notorious, yet their cerebral ganglia are not so large as the quarter of a small pin’s head. Under this point of view, the brain of an ant is one of the most marvellous atoms of matter in the world, perhaps more so than the brain of a man.’ Charles Darwin
We aim to identify within the great complexity of the brain elemental circuits that perform fundamental operations. We challenge these circuits in behavioural tests, delineate their wiring diagrams, and dissect how they work. To do so, we push technological boundaries. Centre scientists have pioneered the development of optogenetics and advanced optical imaging and behavioural automation.
‘The tendency in neuroscience (and I hope this will change) is to say, “Yes, I’d love to have new tools, but will someone else please develop them?”’ Francis Crick
Our collaborative ethos encourages us to be open to the unpredictable, and fiercely critical of our own ideas. It is often the unexpected result, or the inspiration from a seemingly unrelated field, that provides the opportunity to make the greatest progress.
‘Troubles are good for you.’ Efraim Racker