KU Leuven gathers its thoughts on brain science


The university is creating a Brain Institute to gather all its expertise on neuroscience, currently spread across departments as varied as humanities and biochemistry

Better interactions

KU Leuven is creating an institute that will bring together academics at the university interested in all aspects of neuroscience. The aim of the Leuven Brain Institute is to break down the barriers between disciplines so that researchers can share their knowledge and experience more effectively.

“Neuroscience is one of the biggest domains of research at the university, but it is dispersed among many different research groups and departments,” says Peter Janssen, head of the new institute and chair of the Department of Neurosciences. “It’s important to bring all these people together in a thematic institute, to stimulate interactions between neuroscientists and create a place where we can meet and hear about one another’s research.” 

The fragmentation of research is a common problem in large universities, where many areas of science have changed so much that they no longer fit comfortably in the old divisions between disciplines. “It’s a global trend for people to get organised more thematically, instead of following these old historical boundaries,” Janssen explains. “At one time they may have been useful, but now they are not necessarily a good way to organise research.”

Learning from the brain

At KU Leuven, a lot of medical researchers interested in neuroscience are based in the Biomedical Sciences Group, which includes Janssen’s own department. But there are also plenty of biologists and biochemists in the Science and Technology Group who are also working on the subject. “This is mostly molecular neuroscience, plasticity and how the brain changes, ageing and topics like that,” Janssen says. 

Then, thanks to an accident of history, the experimental psychologists who are working on brain imaging and behavioural research find themselves part of the university’s Humanities Group. Here they rub shoulders with the arts, philosophy, law and theology.

Beyond these groups of researchers, the institute is also intended to draw in those with an interest in neuroscience, even if it is not their main area of study. This includes computer scientists working on topics such as machine learning, algorithms and artificial intelligence, and engineers developing robots.

“There is a strong interaction between neuroscience and how the brain solves the problem of grasping an object,” says Janssen. “Robots also have to grasp objects and put them somewhere, so robotics engineers can learn from how the brain does that.”

Robotics and dementia

Another division the institute is intended to address lies between researchers working on the fundamentals of brain science and those developing new treatments. “We have to stimulate the interactions between these groups, because clinicians sometimes have questions that can only be answered by the basic neuroscientists, and vice versa: basic neuroscientists may also have questions that can only be addressed in a patient.” 

The institute will be organised around a number of themes and focus groups suggested by the researchers themselves. A final list is still under discussion, but strong contenders are motor control, to address some of the topics of interest in robotics, and neurodegenerative disease, such as dementia and related conditions.

We have to stimulate the interactions between these groups, because clinicians sometimes have questions that can only be answered by the basic neuroscientists, and vice versa

These focus groups will then organise discussions and lectures, not just with academics from KU Leuven but also with invited speakers from outside. While the institute will have no additional money to spend on research, the importance of the connections these activities will create is not to be underestimated. 

“There is an amazing amount of ignorance about what other people in the university are doing,” Janssen confides. “We frequently know our colleagues in other countries much better than we know our colleagues here.”

Expertise down the hall

The expertise a researcher needs to take up a new technique effectively, or embark on a new line of enquiry, may be just down the hall. “Through these interactions, new collaborations can emerge. You get new ideas, and you get to know people who are working on things that you may need in the future. Ultimately this will lead to better research projects and better science.” 

The institute will also give the neuroscience community at KU Leuven a stronger identity for the outside world. “It will put neuroscience at Leuven on the map for the media, for policymakers and for business,” Janssen says.

Initially distributed around the university, the institute will eventually be headquartered in a building under construction on the Gasthuisberg campus. “This is not for the Leuven Brain Institute as such, but many of the neuroscience groups in Biomedical Sciences will go to that building, so there will be a central place where all the neuroscience-related activities will take place.” The building should be completed by the end of 2020.

Photo: Peter Janssen at the launch of the Leuven Brain Institute in May
(c) KU Leuven - Johan Van Droogenbroeck

University of Leuven

Established almost six centuries ago, the University of Leuven (KU Leuven) is one of the oldest universities in the Low Countries. International rankings consistently place it among the best universities in Europe.
Papal founding - It was founded as a Catholic university by Pope Martin V in 1425.
Bright minds - Over the centuries, it attracted famous scholars like Justus Lipsius, Andreas Vesalius, Desiderius Erasmus and Gerard Mercator.
Micro and nano - KU Leuven is home to the Interuniversity Microelectronics Centre (imec), a world-class research centre in micro- and nanoelectronics.
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