Amsterdam Brain & Cognition
In search of our true identity Who are we really? How do we take decisions? How do we process the daily information overload? How does this – often unobtrusively – influence our behaviour? When are we normal, and abnormal? Are we the only animal species that are conscious and have the ability to communicate with language? Is enjoying music, the ability to reason logically or morality unique to human beings? How does our brain influence the way we socially interact, society and the economy? And conversely, how does our environment and society influence our brain? These questions have continued to preoccupy various academic disciplines for centuries. And now more than ever, actual answers seem to be forthcoming, not only thanks to the work of accomplished scientists but also due to the collaboration among the various disciplines that approach these questions from different perspectives. A multidisciplinary approach paves the way towards unravelling our identity, behaviour, the mystery of the mind, and its relationship with the brain.
Brain and Cognition University-wide
The University of Amsterdam (UvA) has a strong tradition of conducting brain research in human beings and animals as well as research into human cognitive skills. Five faculties are engaged in this focus area (the Faculties of Social and Behavioural Sciences, Science, Humanities, Economics and Business and the Academic Medical Center (AMC-UvA)), which traverses fields such as psychology, educational theory, neurobiology, logic, language, artificial intelligence and robotics, musicology, behavioural economics, neurology, neuro-radiology and psychiatry.
In 2000, to bolster interdisciplinary collaboration, these groups joined forces in the Cognitive Science Center Amsterdam (CSCA). The year 2004 saw the launch of the Master's programme in Brain and Cognitive Sciences. The highly successful Bachelor's programme in Psychobiology was established in 2007. The Spinoza Centre for Neuroimaging was established in association with the VU University Amsterdam (VU) and The Netherlands Institute for Neuroscience (NIN-KNAW). In 2010 the UvA launched 'Brain and Cognition' as a research priority area to bolster brain research.
A decade after CSCA opened its doors, the parties concerned have a strong need to combine the various activities under one roof due to the growing importance of brain research both in the Netherlands and across the globe. This will help to continue to optimise the visibility and reputation of both research and education in the field of brain and cognition at the UvA. It will also meet a clear need for a central point of contact, for instance as a discussion partner for the merger plans with the VU, or for communicating with the press. But more importantly, we wish to join forces to more efficiently develop grant applications – which are increasingly being allocated to major consortia in order to recruit the best students not only in the Netherlands but also internationally - and to attract and retain exceptional talents. Research and education have therefore joined forces and will from now on collectively conduct their activities under the new name of Amsterdam Brain & Cognition or simply ABC. The ABC thus represents two previously separate UvA research programmes (the CSCA and the Brain and Cognition research priority area) and also has plans to integrate all the study programmes in this field into the ABC.
The ABC Board comprises three prominent Brain and Cognition researchers from the participating faculties, in addition to the director of the Master's programme in Brain and Cognitive Sciences and the director of the lead research institute (Psychology). The ABC Board will be assisted by an advisory group representing the relevant researchers and tutors from the five different faculties and the Institute for Interdisciplinary Studies (IIS). The ABC currently has over 300 members who represent the Faculty of Social and Behaviour Sciences, the AMC-UvA, the Faculty of Humanities, the Faculty of Science and the Faculty of Economics and Business.
The ABC's mission
The ABC research priority area
The ABC manages the Brain and Cognition research priority area. This programme, in which more than 50 professors and some 300 researchers are engaged, promotes multidisciplinary research into key brain and cognition issues. Its membership includes European Research Council (ERC) and Spinoza laureates and numerous recipients of Vici, Vidi and Veni grants. ABC members may submit applications for a high-profile collaborative project (ABC Project grant), for talented young researchers who are either eligible for or who have already received VI grants (ABC Talent) and for recruiting eminent international visiting professors (ABC VIP) to invigorate the programme content. These grants aim to boost mutual and international collaboration, promote multidisciplinarity and create an exciting and inspiring breeding ground for brain and cognition research talents.
Organisation: towards an institute
Brain and cognition researchers enjoy listening to one another. Seminars and workshops, such as CSCA lectures or workshops held by visiting professors, are popular. This comes as no surprise given the multidisciplinary nature of topics into which research is conducted and the wide interest typically shown by researchers in this field. Hence there is huge potential for fruitful interaction and collaboration among the ABC membership. The ABC aims to continue and expand on these forms of interaction (seminars, workshops and themed days). Master's students and trainee research assistants (AIOs) will make a major contribution too. We plan to bring together the existing networks (such as the Master's groups and research schools). Our goal is to create meetings with plenty of buzz, a relaxed atmosphere which people enjoy going to and where they can learn a lot from each other. The ABC VIP programme has a key role in the above.
To achieve our goal we aim to accommodate a number of ABC researchers under one roof in the longer term, emulating the example of other prominent institutes in the Netherlands and abroad. These examples have proven that physically joining forces contributes to enhancing collaboration among people, is inspiring and raises efficiency. In the light of the current renovation projects as well as merger plans with the VU, we believe that this is the appropriate time to put the physical location on the agenda. We do realise that it would be unrealistic to accommodate all ABC members under one roof partly in view of the need for laboratories and facilities for laboratory animals, and that clear agreements must be made with the educational and research institutes concerned. This could, for instance, mean that recipients of substantial, personal grants should work at the ABC institute as far as possible, or alternately that ABC researchers spend (part of) their sabbatical in the institute. We therefore believe that it is possible to accommodate a rotating and select group of researchers in one institute, as is currently the case to a limited extent in the REC-D (Faculty of Social and Behaviour Sciences LAB). However, REC-D is small and has initially not been earmarked for offices.
Collaboration among brain researchers in Amsterdam
A merger with the VU has been on the cards for quite some time. The most advanced plans are those of the science faculties (the UvA Faculty of Science and the VU Faculty of Earth and Life Sciences) into one Amsterdam Faculty of Science (AFS), and apart from that the Department of Neurosciences at the VU University Medical Center Amsterdam (VUMC) and the AMC-UvA. But blueprints have already been sketched of other faculty mergers. ABC departments, particularly Neurobiology, the A.I. and the Institute for Logic, Language and Computation (IILC), partly fall under the Faculty of Science and as a result may fall under the AFS in the future. The Bachelor's programme in Psychobiology (see below) – a key element of programmes in the field of brain and cognition currently falls under the Faculty of Science. Moreover the CSCA Master's programme (see below), which makes a substantial contribution to education in the field of brain and cognition, falls under the IIS, which in turn falls under the Faculty of Science.
The ABC holds the view that a merger of all brain and cognition research conducted throughout the Amsterdam area offers abundant opportunities. The NIN-KNAW should also be involved in this. As the number of brain researchers (estimated at 1,000 FTEs) as well as the geographic spread of the various institutes would preclude a complete merger in the short term, we will need to work towards gradual and closer collaboration. It is interesting to observe that the theme of brain and cognition has brought about a natural dichotomy in Amsterdam running parallel to the current VU and UvA profiling. Where the VU and VUMC are particularly strong in the field of fundamental (molecular) neurobiology and the clinical neurodegenerative disciplines (Alzheimer's disease, geriatrics, etc.) the profile of the UvA and the AMC-UvA has a greater focus on a wider understanding of cognition, emotion and behaviour (consciousness, motivation and anxiety) and the related clinical disorders. The research conducted at the NIN and part of the research performed at the Faculty of Science cover both fields and already serve to link up both institutions. The ABC therefore advocates clear profiling along these two lines: the VU-VUMC Neuroscience Campus Amsterdam with a focus on fundamental and molecular neuroscience and the ABC (AMC-UvA) with a focus on cognitive neuroscience and behavioural sciences. Plans for a larger neuroscience campus in the Amsterdam Zuidas business district should, if possible, be mirrored in plans for a similar organisation in the ABC with its centre located in the Amsterdam city centre. This means that students and researchers will in fact be able to make a clear choice in terms of content.
Given the nature of their research, the research groups that take part in research at both centres will cement the links between the two centres. Annual consultations between the management of both centres will ensure they coordinate and reach agreement, serving to reinforce each other's activities rather than compete with one another.
Collaboration with the Spinoza Centre
Neuroimaging constitutes a key methodological component of brain and cognition research. Accordingly, the ABC highly values strong participation in the Spinoza Centre, in which the VU and NIN take part in addition to the UvA and the AMC-UvA. The ABC will make every effort to ensure a permanent financial as well as substantive contribution to the Spinoza Centre to enable its researchers to gain easy access to such advanced facilities at all times.
The ABC’s programmes
The brain and cognition programmes consist of a range of Master's and Bachelor's programmes. The CSCA Research Master's in Brain and Cognitive Sciences (which includes the tracks of Cognitive Science, Cognitive NeuroScience and Behavioural Neuroscience) is pivotal to this programme. This is a unique multidisciplinary Master's programme – supported by all the relevant participants – which is characteristic of the field. Due to its multidisciplinary nature the CSCA Master's programme is housed in the IIS which, in turn, falls under the Faculty of Science as a result of the Faculty being able to offer two-year Master's programmes. Further programmes include the Research Master's in Psychology, the Psychology Master's tracks in Brain and Cognition and Clinical Neuropsychology, and four Master's tracks in Neurobiology at the Faculty of Science. The Master's programme in Behavioural Economics and Game Theory (with courses including Neuroeconomics) offered by the Faculty of Economics and Business also aligns well with the above programmes. The ABC advocates that the first CSCA Master's programme referred to above, which constitutes the core of the degree programme in brain and cognition, remains attached to the AMC-UvA and incorporated in the ABC. From a logistical and theme point of view, this is the most logical solution.
At Bachelor's level the key programmes in this field are psychobiology and psychology. Psychobiology is a highly successful and rather unique combination of programmes in the Netherlands on the interface of psychology and biology supported on a fifty-fifty basis by lecturers from both fields. This Bachelor's programme also falls under the Faculty of Science. It qualifies students for both the CSCA Master's programme in Brain and Cognition and the Master's programme in Neuroscience at the Faculty of Science. The ABC would advocate retaining this Bachelor's programme for the AMC-UvA and incorporating it in the ABC, but in any case in student communications. In terms of content, this would provide tremendous added value (alignment with the CSCA Master's and other Master's programmes is entirely natural). In terms of logistics (lecturer and student flows) this would also be the most obvious option. This does not alter the fact that this Bachelor's programme also constitutes a key source of incoming students for the Neuroscience Master's programme in Biology, which will also continue to profile itself as such.
An ambitious step forward
The ABC is aware that substantial changes will be seen if its ambitions are implemented. Yet we believe these steps logically follow the direction we are pursuing towards achieving greater interdisciplinary collaboration, which characterises the fascinating field it represents. We envisage an inspiring and exciting consortium where students, lecturers and researchers will collectively endeavour to unravel the mystery of the human mind.
1 October 2013
Amsterdam Brain and Cognition
Victor Lamme, Professor of Cognitive Neurosciences and Psychology
Damiaan Denys, Professor of Psychiatry, AMC-UvA
Henkjan Honing, Professor of Music Cognition
Agneta Fischer, director, Psychology Research Institute
Harm Krugers, programme director, Research Master's programme in Brain and Cognitive Sciences