Neuroscience

Domain Chair:

Prof. Trevor Smart

Domain Coordinator:

Dr Matt Wakelin

Communication and Events Officer:

Rachel Heatley

A A A

Research

Neuroscience at UCL spans seven core themes Molecular, Developmental, Cellular, Systems, Cognitive, Computational and Clinical.

These research themes span the wide spectrum of neuroscience research at UCL, providing an important focus for researchers, enabling collaboration and knowledge sharing. Connections exist between all the seven core themes, reflecting the cross-discplinary nature of research at UCL.

The breadth and depth of neuroscience expertise at UCL offers unrivalled opportunities for undertaking cutting-edge, collaborative research activities.

UCL has long held an outstanding reputation for the quality of its basic neuroscience. This provides a unique platform for integration with UCL’s clinical strengths, which is a key part of our neuroscience strategy for solving the most challenging problems in the field.

Side Image - Molecular

Molecular neuroscience studies how molecules enable nerve cells to control their excitable behaviour, how they facilitate the reception and processing of incoming information from the surrounding environment, and how they then enable communication within single cells and also between networks of cells.

UCL researchers study both neurons and the surrounding glial cells by combining techniques from molecular and cell biology, electrophysiology, neurogenetics and imaging.

Molecular neuroscience at UCL is housed mainly in the Medical Sciences building and in the new £9m Andrew Huxley building where internationally recognized research groups study how nerve cells send signals to one another. This includes, for example, how nerve cells are excited by cell surface receptors for glutamate and inhibited by receptors for GABA; how calcium channels control processes as diverse as muscle contraction and hormone secretion; and how numerous cell proteins interact to affect fast information processing in the brain and learning and memory.

Across UCL, research groups study how receptors, ion channels and transporters are moved to the cell surface and how long they reside there (trafficking); how specific isoforms of receptors and channels are targeted to particular specializations on the cell surface, such as synapses (targeting); and how different pathways can affect their function (modulation).

Addressing these questions is important not only for finding out how these proteins function in healthy nervous systems, but also for deciding what has gone wrong when there is faulty regulation. This can be caused by genetic mutations that affect the function, trafficking or synthesis of proteins, resulting in diseases such as epilepsy, Huntington’s disease, Parkinson’s disease, depression and anxiety.

Side Image - Developmental

During development of the nervous system, neurons are generated from progenitor cells, adopt specific identities, migrate to sites distant from where they are born and form complex networks of connections with other neurons.  This almost inconceivably complex task of building a functional nervous system is the subject of research in the field of developmental neuroscience.

At UCL, many internationally renowned investigators work across the whole spectrum of neural development from the initial specification of neural tissue, to the formation and maintenance of functional neuronal circuits, to the development of higher mental function in children and adults. For example, one of the most poorly understood aspects of brain development is morphogenesis, the process by which the developing nervous system takes shape. If this fails to occur properly, the outcome can be devastating conditions such as spina bifida (a failure of the neural plate to close into a tube) and holoprosencephaly (a failure to properly separate the left and right sides of the brain).

Research progress depends upon the availability of tools and resources that allow experiments to be performed. At UCL, there are many novel and powerful techniques being used to study the developing brain.  In particular, high-resolution imaging is now central to many studies. In the small transparent brains of developing fish embryos, it is feasible to watch every single cell in the live animal and even in the more inaccessible brains of mammals, various microscopic techniques allow visualisation of processes at previously unattainable levels of resolution.   Not only can one observe neurons being born, migrating and extending axons towards their targets, new tools allow one to image activity in the neurons facilitating study of the development of functional circuits. 

Side Image - Cellular

Cellular neuroscience bridges the gap between the function of individual molecules and the behaviour of entire assemblies of neurons that carry out higher level functions such as the visual system or motor system.

Nerve and glial cells process information received by the senses to analyse what is going on in the environment, they store information so that it can be retrieved later to guide future actions, and they send signals to the muscles to allow us to move, speak and interact with others. Defects in cellular processes cause brain disorders such as cancer, epilepsy, depression and schizophrenia.

UCL has many outstanding cellular neuroscience researchers working at locations across campus, including the new £9m Andrew Huxley building for Molecular and Cellular Neuroscience. UCL researchers use a wide range of techniques including patch-clamping to study electrical signals from cells; biochemistry to study intracellular signalling pathways; calcium imaging to determine how neurotransmitters regulate intracellular processes; molecular biology to probe the contributions of genes and molecular properties to cell function; and confocal and 2-photon imaging to study both the location of proteins within cells and the properties of nerve cells deep within the brain.

Highlights of this work include detailed studies of how the nervous system develops; how the gaseous messenger nitric oxide contributes to synaptic plasticity and to cell death in stroke; how neurotransmitter signalling affects nerve and glial cell function both normally and in conditions like cerebral palsy and spinal cord injury; how neuronal dendrites carry out computations; and how the blood supply to the brain is controlled.

Side Image - Systems

Do babies feel pain?  How do we find our way home?  Which parts of our brain enable us to perceive the shape of an object, the colour of a flower, the direction from which a sound is heard?  Systems neuroscientists at UCL try to answer these and similar questions. 

They study the responses of nerve cells in different parts of the brain to pictures, tones, touches and smells.  They try to understand how groups of neurones cooperate with each other to extract information from the environment and use it to perform simple actions such as controlling delicate finger movements or more complex behaviours such as sleep and wakefulness.

UCL systems neuroscientists have made major contributions to our knowledge of which areas of the visual brain are responsible for the perception of colour and motion, how cells in the hippocampus underpin spatial memory and navigation, what the role of the cerebellum in motor learning is, and which spinal cord cells and neurotransmitters are involved in pain perception. Some of this knowledge is gained by disturbing or rendering inactive parts of the brain and observing how behaviour is modified. Other approaches involve monitoring interactions between nerve cells with microelectrodes, optical or chemical probes, and modifying the way they communicate with each other using specific drugs.

Although a great deal of this work is motivated by a desire to understand how the brain works, much of it is clinically relevant and may provide the basis for the development of drugs and other procedures to tackle such problems as pathological pains, hearing problems, developmental learning disorders, and the memory deficits of amnesics.

Side Image - Cognitive

Cognitive neuroscience seeks to find out how higher mental functions such as perception, memory, attention, emotion and decision-making are related to neural activity.

UCL Neuroscience has one of the largest groupings of cognitive neuroscience researchers in the world. Their research on how mental processes relate to the human brain spans both health and disease and studies both children and adults. Progress in cognitive neuroscience research depends on the availability of specific tools and resources that allow researchers to provide converging evidence from different experimental techniques.

At UCL, many powerful and novel techniques are used to study mental processes in the human brain behavioral experiments to study perception, thought and action; functional imaging techniques such as functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) or magnetoencephalograhy (MEG) to study the brain mechanisms underlying higher cognitive processes; transcranial magnetic stimulation to probe the effects of transiently disrupting brain function; and neuropsychological methods to investigate how brain damage can impair cognitive function.

Cognitive neuroscience research takes place in many locations and clinical settings around UCL but two particular foci of activity are the Wellcome Trust Centre for Neuroimaging and the UCL Institute of Cognitive Neuroscience, both in Queen Square. The Wellcome Trust Centre for Neuroimaging is a large internationally recognized scientific centre of excellence for functional neuroimaging with three research-dedicated MRI scanners and an MEG suite used by researchers across UCL. The UCL Institute of Cognitive Neuroscience is a thriving interdisciplinary research centre that brings together cognitive neuroscience researchers from many different backgrounds across UCL with a common interest in understanding human brain function.

Side Image - Computational

The brain uses information gathered from the body and the surrounding world to build internal representations and to control behaviour. Sensory signals are processed as they flow from peripheral sensory receptors through networks of neurons, and computations are performed at the synaptic, neuronal and network level. Computational neuroscience seeks to construct theories and quantitative models of how these computations take place.

Computational neuroscientists use analyses and models of the nervous system at these different structural scales in order to understand how such computations might be performed. This enables them to provide new interpretations of experimental data, make predictions that can be tested experimentally and suggest entirely new avenues for investigating how the brain works.

At UCL, there is a large and vibrant community of researchers involved in computational neuroscience. Their research ranges from computational models of individual synapses and single neurons to entire networks.

A particular focus of interdisciplinary computational neuroscience research at UCL is the internationally renowned Gatsby Computational Neuroscience Unit. Work at the Gatsby studies neural computational theories of perception and action in neural and machine systems, with an emphasis on learning. The Unit has an active role in teaching the next generation of computational neuroscience researchers, centered on an innovative four-year PhD program in Computational Neuroscience and Machine Learning.  

Side Image - Clinical

Clinical neuroscience focuses on the fundamental mechanisms that underlie diseases and disorders of the brain and central nervous system. In addition, it seeks to develop new ways of diagnosing such disorders and ultimately on developing novel treatments.

At UCL, clinical neuroscience research spans the entire spectrum of neurological, ophthalmic and psychiatric disorders in both children and adults. Clinical neuroscience is an interdisciplinary theme and so at UCL clinical neuroscientists work in many locations, including the Institute of Child Health (with its partner hospital Great Ormond Street), the Institute of Ophthalmology (with its partner hospital Moorfields Eye Hospital) and the Institute of Neurology (with its partner hospital the National Hospital for Neurology and Neurosurgery). All of these institutions are the leading British academic research institutions in their respective fields and received the highest possible rating in the last Research Assessment Exercise.

A particular strength of clinical neuroscience at UCL is the close pairing of these research institutes with unique world-leading specialist hospitals. For example, the National Hospital for Neurology & Neurosurgery is the largest such specialist hospital in the UK. It sees over 54,000 patients annually with a wide range of neurological conditions such as epilepsy, multiple sclerosis, Alzheimer’s, Huntington’s disease, stroke and head injuries.

Clinical neuroscience not only studies the fundamental mechanisms underlying neurological and psychiatric disorders, but seeks to translate such advances into new treatments. UCL is the only institution in the UK that has partnerships with three newly established national centres for translational research; the UCL/H Comprehensive Biomedical Research Centre and the Specialist Biomedical Research Centres at Great Ormond Street Hospital/ICH and Moorfields/IOO.