Researchers at Sussex University investigating how nerve cells acquire information and then organise themselves to generate behaviour have won a Pounds 4.8 million award from the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council.
The scientists, based at the university's centre for neuroscience, are studying simple neuron systems in animals such as the snail to help them understand how vastly more complicated systems such as the brain works.
Centre director Michael O'Shea explained that neurons in different species show little difference at the molecular and cellular level. There is also very little difference between them in the principles of operation: "It is the way neurons arrange themselves and their number that determines the complexity of the system as a whole," he says. While the humble pond snail has only a few thousand cells making up its brain, the human brain is the most complex system known, with more than 100 billion cells.
Work at the centre, one of several Interdisciplinary Research Centres allied to the BBSRC, also explores ways of applying research. Professor O'Shea says researchers want to collaborate with computer scientists to design better artificial "nervous systems" for controlling autonomous robots.