G2C Online launches
After three years of work, a collaboration between Wellcome Trust Sanger Institute scientists and a web development team at Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory has put the finishing touches on a project targeted for non-scientists that aims to "connect the dots" in several important areas of brain research. G2C Online has been modelled on research emanating from the Genes to Cognition Research Programme at the Sanger Institute.
The first-of-its-kind website went live on Monday 16 March, to coincide with International Brain Awareness Week. Called G2C Online (www.g2conline.org) - a shorthand for its objective of spanning the vast conceptual (and biological) distance from "genes" to "cognition" - the site is targeted for biology and psychology students, as well as families who are facing mental health problems and interested members of the public.
Over a period of decades, scientists from a wide variety of disciplines have devoted themselves to discovering how the human brain functions, both in health and in illness. With each passing year, we understand more and more of the fantastically complex puzzle of how an organ comprised of tens of billions of nerve cells gives rise to higher functions such as thought, planning, and problem-solving. The pace of discovery is so rapid that even experts have difficulty keeping up. Yet the challenge for the general public is far greater: how are they to make sense of successive waves of discovery in increasingly complex fields?
G2C programme director Seth Grant, from the Sanger Institute, uses network theory to study the interactions - from genes to proteins to synapses - that result in human thinking and disorders of thinking. Insights from the research lab are enriched by contributions from neuroscientists from across the globe, who provide different perspectives on genetic, neural, and cognitive approaches to understanding human behaviour.
The website, which looks not only at the genetics, but also at the physiology and biology of cognition, will be a common portal for researchers and the general public. G2C Online links real scientific data, generated by the Sanger Institute's G2C research programme, with explanatory information that makes this data accessible for a wider audience.
"Scientists must communicate their work to the public. The direct link between the G2C Online education site and the G2C research program closes that gap."
Seth Grant, G2C Progrmme Director, Wellcome Trust Sanger Institute
The site is designed and administered by the BioMedia Group of Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory's Dolan DNA Learning Center (DNALC). The DNALC is the first science centre dedicated to public genetics education.
G2C Online is distinguished both by its content and the way in which this content is represented on the web: specifically, its method of rendering the complex and interlocking relationships between different aspects of brain anatomy and function. Just as the brain itself is composed of interconnected networks of cells, the site graphically represents information about these components as members of a vast network, whose nodes are interconnected.
The user's perspective of the network shifts as he or she navigates from one point to another. The effect is to underscore the connections between known elements in brain circuitry, neuroanatomy, and brain function and dysfunction, in the context of specific brain illnesses such as autism, schizophrenia, bipolar illness, and depression.
The site is interactive at every level, with representation of its content shifting as the viewer changes perspective - whether from autism to schizophrenia or among the various categories in which these illnesses are organized: genes, biochemicals, cells, brain anatomy, cognition, and environment.
"If you needed expert advice on autism, you would contact the most reputable physician you know. That physician might make a referral to the most reputable neurologist or psychiatrist she knows, who, in turn, would put you into contact with an expert on autism. Each of these well-connected individuals is a node in a social network that positions you just four steps from the critical information you need."
David Micklos, executive director of the G2C Programme
"We live in a 'small world' in which only several social connections separate any two people. Recent research has shown that brain function relies on exactly the same types of small-world networks. For example, each of the several hundred molecules involved in processing a nervous signal is, on average, separated by less than four connections from any other molecule."
John Connolly, executive producer of G2C online
The computer technology behind G2C Online is every bit as revolutionary as the science it covers, notes Sue Lauter, creative director at the DNA Learning Center. Each content item - and its relationships to other items - is stored in a database. A "network engine" draws items from the database to construct a dynamic network that interacts with the needs of the user. Rich multimedia will form the major nodes of the network. Key among these materials are narrated animations that seamlessly integrate video narration with cell and molecular animations, experiment simulations, and bioinformatics tools.