Professor Aurel Lazar’s Team a Finalist in Open Science Research Competition

Lazar and his team are developing an open software platform that will integrate data of the fruit fly brain within a single unified database.

May 26 2016 | By Holly Evarts

A team led by Electrical Engineering Professor Aurel Lazar is one of six finalists in the Open Science Prize, a global competition recently launched that supports the development of open platforms and promotes the power of open content and data for biomedical research. Lazar and his team are developing OpenArch, an open software platform, dubbed the Fruit Fly Brain Observatory, that will integrate healthy and diseased neurobiological and modeling data of the fruit fly brain, and its genetic markers, within a single unified database.

Neurodegenerative disorders, such as Alzheimer’s, Huntington’s, and Parkinson’s, pose major medical and socioeconomic challenges for society, and understanding human brain function and disease is considered to be the biggest challenge in neuroscience. To address this challenge within ethical guidelines, researchers use smaller but sufficiently complex brains like that of the fruit fly. Much fruit fly research has already demonstrated valuable insights on many human neurodegenerative conditions.

“Building an accurate emulation of the fruit fly brain requires an interdisciplinary effort that integrates data, algorithms, and insight from a range of fields including neuroscience, computer science, and electrical engineering, with the goal of enabling development of better diagnostic tools as well as therapeutic discoveries for humans,” says Lazar, who is working on this project with colleagues at the National Tsinghua University in Taiwan, and at the University of Sheffield in the U.K. “This is a significant honor for our team, and we invite researchers around the world to join us in working on our open project.”

Lazar, whose research interests are in computing with neural circuits (in silico) and on reverse engineering the fruit fly (Drosophila melanogaster) brain (in vivo and in silico), directs the Bionet Group at Columbia Engineering and is a member of the Data Science Institute. His work on computing with neural circuits is centered on neural computing engines and on neuroinformation processing machines. His in vivo work on reverse engineering the fruit fly brain primarily addresses sensory processing in the early olfactory system of the Drosophila. More recently, he launched the Neurokernel Project, a potentially transformative open-source software platform for the isolated and integrated emulation and validation of fruit fly brain neural circuits.

The Open Science Prize is a collaboration between the National Institutes of Health and the U.K.-based Wellcome Trust with additional funding provided by the Howard Hughes Medical Institute of Chevy Chase, MD. The aim is to make both the outputs from science and the research process broadly accessible to the public. The six finalists will each receive $80,000 to develop prototypes and compete for $230,000 to be awarded in early 2017.

Selected from 96 multinational, interdisciplinary teams representing 450 innovators from 45 countries, Lazar’s group includes PhD students Nikul Ukani and Chung-Heng Yeh, and Postdoctoral Research Scientist Yiyin Zhou at Columbia; Ann-Shyn Chiang and Chung-Chuan Lo at National Tsinghua University; and Daniel Coca, Dorian Florescu, Carlos Luna Ortiz, Paul Richmond, and Adam Tomkins at University of Sheffield.

Final prototypes will be demonstrated at an Open Science Prize showcase to be held in early December. The public will be invited to vote online for their favorite prototype. The winner of the competition is expected to be announced in February 2017.

Photo by Eileen Barroso

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