J-Node: the Japanese face of INCF
Introducting the J-Node
The official center of the Node, the Neuroinformatics Japan Center (NIJC), is located at RIKEN Brain Science Institute. Its steering committee, together with the Japan Node Committee and the Platform Subcommittees, promotes domestic neuroinformatics activities and interfaces with the international community via INCF.
Shiro Usui (left) has a PhD in Electrical Engineering and Computer Science from UC Berkeley. When he was an undergraduate student in Electrical Engineering in Japan, he was very interested in cybernetics and studied the hand’s coordination system using electromyograms. He wrote a letter to Professor Lawrence Stark at UC Berkeley, who was an expert in the field at that time, and was invited to study bioengineering in Stark’s lab. There, Shiro got involved in visual neuroscience and did his PhD thesis on the pupillary light reflex.
After establishing a research career in Japan he contributed to the first Japanese Space medical experiment on Space Shuttle (STS-47) in 1992, to study space sickness through the vestibulo-ocular reflex system of the Japanese Carp. In this experiment, he analyzed cerebellar EEG data, and proved that carp really got space sickness. For this work he was awarded the Inose Prize from IEICE in 1994. Some years earlier, in 1986, he founded the Biological and Physiological Engineering Symposium, which is still ongoing - the 26th meeting was held in 2011. Though he was not yet aware of the field of neuroinformatics, these activities helped establish the field in Japan. For this reason, Professor Amari enlisted his help to establish and strengthen Japanese neuroinformatics, and later Shiro became the first coordinator of the Japanese INCF Node.
Databases and services form the basis for the Node activities
The J-Node offers a number of platforms, supported by NIJC and built to service different neuroscience areas and their associated communities. Each platform is an active group in Japan in the field of neuroscience database and neuroinformatics. This platform-based approach to neuroinformatics and community coordination was initiated in 1999 with the “Japanese Neuroinformatics Research in Vision” project led by Shiro Usui, which eventually developed into setting up the Visiome Platform, as the first neuroinformatics project of the J-Node. The format of Visiome PF was then generalized into the database infrastructure XooNIps, which now supports all the platforms.
When the J-Node was launched, I picked up research themes which are high level and active, and set up the J-Node together with highly motivated members with a form of top-down structure. Each platform is operated by its committee, and the committee members, who are top-class researchers in Japan, are engaged in platform development and operation.
says Shiro Usui, the Director of NIJC which coordinates the Japan-Node, and Team Leader of Neuroinformatics lab at RIKEN BSI.
The J-Node is officially supported by the Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology (MEXT). Although the budget is small compared to other countries, Shiro Usui says, the J-Node could receive continuous support as long as INCF coordinates worldwide under the present scheme.
Evolving and growing the Japanese neuroinformatics community
The Node’s activities are in constant evolution. Awareness of neuroinformatics has increased in the scientific community, and several initiatives – among them the Monkey Face DB and Brain Science Dictionary, a MediaWiki based Japanese dictionary - have asked to join the J-Node platforms. The J-Node is also participating in a newly funded strategic research program “Informatics Studies toward Understanding Emotion Regulation” which is coordinated by Prof. Kaibuchi at Nagoya University and funded by the MEXT Strategic Research Program for Brain Sciences (SRPBS) Field G “Bioinformatics for Brain Sciences”.
Our next step is the development of environment where people can try tools and models on the fly: the Simulation PF, which provides a cloud environment for model simulation. It is being developed and we are about to open it. It is also going to cooperate with ModelDB of Yale University. In addition, we are developing the PLATO, which connects sub-models to system models. Both projects are getting various digital contents registered, so what is necessary from now on is for the researchers to utilize them. These will lead to the purpose of understanding the brain as a system by integrating the data and sub-models.
The Japanese neuroinformatics community is big enough to support several neuroinformatics-themed meetings and workshops each year. The latest such meeting was the yearly Japanese Neural Network Society’s (JNNS) 21st Annual Conference, which was held at Okinawa Institute of Science and Technology (OIST) in December 2011. It was followed by the 11th Japan-Korea-China Joint Workshop on Neurobiology and Neuroinformatics (NBNI) held at the same venue. In 2010, the J-Node and the Japanese NI community successfully arranged the 3rd INCF Neuroinformatics Congress in Kobe, Japan. The Node and the representatives from different Platforms are also frequent contributors to demo and poster sessions in the INCF booth at SfN each year, and at the local equivalent, the yearly Japanese Neuroscience Meeting.
International collaboration to move forward
Despite the size and activity of the Japanese neuroinformatics community, the Node needs its international ties to make better contributions to the understanding of the brain, says Shiro Usui:
The future role of the J-Node is to integrate neuroinformatics in Japan and open it to the world, to cooperate internationally and to contribute to worldwide collaborations for the development of the field. Brain science is a very wide scientific field and it is impossible for any country to understand the brain by itself. International cooperation is inevitable.
Given the scope of the work needed for investigating and comprehending the brain's anatomy and function we can only agree.