Team Science, Big Science, and Open Science In the Service of Understanding Cortex

In 2012, the Allen Institute for Brain Science, a non-profit medical research organization, embarked on an ambitious 10-year initiative to understand the structure and function of the neocortex and associated satellite structures in humans and mice within a large-scale, radical open-science, team setting. Since then, we have set up high through-put pipelines to exhaustively characterize the morphology, electrophysiology and single-cell transcriptome of cell types as well as their synaptic interconnections in the laboratory mouse and in human neocortex based on neurosurgical excised tissue. This allows us to construct a taxonomy of hundreds of cell types in these two species. Furthermore, we built brain observatories to record the activities of 10,000s of neurons throughout visual cortex in behaving mice, to record their electrical activities, and to analyze their connectivity at the ultra-structural level. We constructed biophysically detailed as well as simplified computer simulations of the neurons, link them into cortical circuit, provide them realistic visual input and compare their firing activities against our observed functional measures. Anybody can access this data via our data portal without any restriction ( I shall demonstrate the power of this approach for the mouse thalamo-cortical system, including establishing its hierarchical structure in terms of both its structure and its function, its involvement in visual masking, and reproducing the macroscopic current sources and sinks in cortical tissue from the underlying micro variables, active neurons. These achievements can also be considered an experiment in the sociology of biology.


Christof Koch is a neuroscientist best known for his studies and writings exploring the basis of consciousness, starting with the molecular biologist Francis Crick more than a quarter of a century ago. Trained as a physicist, Christof was for 27 years a professor of biology and engineering at the California Institute of Technology. In 2015, he became the President of the Allen Institute for Brain Science in Seattle. He’s now the Chief Scientist of the MindScope Program at the Allen Institute, operating brain observatories to map, analyze and understand the brain of mice and humans. He’s also the Chief Scientist of the Tiny Blue Dot Foundation, with its focus on understanding consciousness, its place in nature, and how this knowledge can benefit all of humanity. He is a frequent public speaker and writes a regular column for Scientific American. Christof is a vegetarian who lives on a small island in the Pacific Northwest and who loves big dogs, rowing, climbing, running, and biking.