Modeling the brain at multiple scales

A new software tool, NetPyNE, enables users to model brain activity from cells to circuits without the need for expertise in computer programming.

Neurons visualized using the NetPyNE software tool. Image credit: Dura-Bernal et al. (CC BY 4.0)

The approximately 100 billion neurons in our brain are responsible for everything we do and experience. Experiments aimed at discovering how these cells encode and process information generate vast amounts of data. These data span multiple scales, from interactions between individual molecules to coordinated waves of electrical activity that spread across the entire brain surface. To understand how the brain works, we must combine and make sense of these diverse types of information.

Computational modeling provides one way of doing this. Using equations, we can calculate the chemical and electrical changes that take place in neurons. We can then build models of neurons and neural circuits that reproduce the patterns of activity seen in experiments. Exploring these models can provide insights into how the brain itself works. Several software tools are available to simulate neural circuits, but none provide an easy way of incorporating data that span different scales, from molecules to cells to networks. Moreover, most of the models require familiarity with computer programming.

Dura-Bernal et al. have now developed a new software tool called NetPyNE, which allows users without programming expertise to build sophisticated models of brain circuits. It features a user-friendly interface for defining the properties of the model at molecular, cellular and circuit scales. It also provides an easy and automated method to identify the properties of the model that enable it to reproduce experimental data. Finally, NetPyNE makes it possible to run the model on supercomputers and offers a variety of ways to visualize and analyze the resulting output. Users can save the model and output in standardized formats, making them accessible to as many people as possible.

Researchers in labs across the world have used NetPyNE to study different brain regions, phenomena and diseases. The software also features in courses that introduce students to neurobiology and computational modeling. NetPyNE can help to interpret isolated experimental findings, and also makes it easier to explore interactions between brain activity at different scales. This will enable researchers to decipher how the brain encodes and processes information, and ultimately could make it easier to understand and treat brain disorders.