The neocortex constitutes nearly 80% of the human brain and is made of repeating stereotypical microcircuits composed of different neuron subtypes. The neocortical microcircuit exhibit immense computational capabilities, with the capacity to take part in a number of different tasks. This capability allows the neocortex to be parcelled into multiple overlapping vertical columns (0.3 – 0.5 mm in diameter) each with a distinct function, thus forming the foundation of neocortical functional compartmentalization. We believe that the neocortical microcircuits within such functional cortical columns represent a fundamental unit of computation, constituting the essence of neocortical computation. In other words, the neural microcircuit lies at the heart of the information processing capability of the neocortex.
Deriving the blue print of the cortical microcircuit is therefore essential for a comprehensive understanding of higher cognitive functions. In order to achieve this goal, we systematically characterize the electrophysiological, structural and molecular properties of individual neurons as well as local rules of connectivity and the synaptic properties of interconnected neurons. Recently we also started to investigate the neuromodulation of microcircuit dynamics. The functional properties of the microcircuit are ultimately defined by the dynamic repertoire of its constituent neurons and synapses, and we thus invest a considerable effort into unravelling the molecular underpinnings of these dynamic properties. These efforts include developing high throughput protocols for characterizing and mapping ion channels and to derive the single-cell transcriptome.
Detailed information about the microcircuit is also essential for a comprehensive understanding of neurological and psychiatric disorders resulting from a dysfunction of the neocortex. This could provide the foundation for developing interventions that remedy such microcircuit deviations. In the LNMC we investigate the role of microcircuit alterations in relation to autism. One of our major contributions thus far includes the proposition of the intense world theory for autism.
The experimental data generated by LNMC is used by the Blue Brain Project (BBP) to build realistic in silico models of the neocortical column, with the aim to gain insights into the signal processing of cortical circuits through detailed computer simulations.