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Brain laboratory adds to neuroscience hub

(Keystone)

Geneva University has inaugurated a neuroscience laboratory specialising in the study of brain and human behaviour.

From March 2009 about 200 scientists are expected to start work at the laboratory, which is likely to form part of a future regional neuroscience centre bringing together research teams from the Lake Geneva area.

On Monday the university unveiled a 13-tonne, state-of-the-art magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scanner at its Brain and Behaviour Laboratory (BBL), acquired thanks to a SFr6 million ($4.92 million) donation from the Société Académique de Genève.

The MRI, part of a long-term investment by Geneva University in neuroscience, represents the cornerstone of a unique European centre.

"It's the first laboratory of its kind in the world which brings together an extraordinarily wide range of techniques and methodologies to carry out research into emotions," said Klaus Scherer, director of the Swiss Centre for Affective Sciences.

Effective treatment

The BBL also houses a sleep laboratory, a virtual reality unit and an electroencephalograph (equipment for detecting and recording brain waves), making it possible to directly test the effect of emotions induced in the virtual reality lab and to record during sleep the electrical and functional activity of the brain.

"With the BBL we have a whole range of possibilities, as it will involve not just neuroscience, neurology or psychiatry, but also psychology and psychophysiology," Patrik Vuilleumier, director of Geneva University's Neuroscience Centre, told swissinfo.

"The aim is to understand how the brain functions or dysfunctions," he said. "We are focusing on research into neurodegenerative diseases like Alzheimer's or multiple sclerosis, or psychic disorders, but to design new diagnostic tests we also have to understand better how the brain works and how different regions are connected."

"A key objective of the research on multiple sclerosis is to be able to detect the disease as early as possible in order to propose an early and effective treatment."

The powerful MRI will also be used to see how various regions of the brain interact, function or dysfunction, in particular following a brain hemorrhage.

BBL researchers will also study how the brain reacts to music, in particular how much helps it deal with pain, and also the influence of hypnosis on the brain.

Regional brain centre

According to the American journal Science, the Lake Geneva region is considered to be the third most important study centre in Europe for neuroscience behind Oxford and Cambridge in Britain.

There is close cooperation and interaction between Geneva and Lausanne universities and university hospitals, and the Federal Institute of Technology, Lausanne, with more than 80 neuroscience research groups.

"Over the past ten years there has been a progressively growing interest in all fields of neuroscience in the Lake Geneva region attracting young scientists and new research groups," said Vuilleumier.

In 2007 Geneva researchers published 432 neuroscience articles, ahead of Lausanne (254 articles) and behind Zurich University and Federal Institute of Technology (786 articles).

"With Geneva University's Neuroscience Centre, the Swiss Centre for Affective Sciences and Lausanne's Centre for Biomedical Imaging, things are starting to take shape in the region and offer a great deal of hope," said Jean-Dominique Vassalli, rector of Geneva University.

Building on this local development, the Geneva cantonal government recently announced plans to re-develop the Jonction district of the city incorporating a Lake Geneva neuroscience and arts centre, student accommodation and a park.

The local government is due to officially present the project this month. If all goes to plan, the project could be up and running by 2015. For now, the university authorities are supportive but remain more cautious than the politicians.

"Such a project has its place in Geneva, where the university is a leader in research into emotions," Charles Beer, head of education for canton Geneva, told Le Temps newspaper. "It's a fertile area for collaboration between Geneva and Lausanne universities and the Federal Institute of Technology, Lausanne."

"Even if we continue to make the most of our assets like international Geneva or the finance sector, we have decided not to rest on our laurels," added Mark Müller, the canton's minister in charge of construction.

"Who knows? The United Nations could one day decide to leave Geneva.

"As the European Organisation for Nuclear Research (Cern) discovered the internet in the 20th century, so the future centre at Jonction could be a melting pot of major future developments."

swissinfo, Simon Bradley in Geneva

Swiss neuroscience

Switzerland has a fast-growing neuroscience community: the Swiss Society for Neuroscience has more than 1,000 members.

There is close cooperation and interaction between Geneva and Lausanne universities and university hospitals, and the Federal Institute of Technology, Lausanne, with more than 80 neuroscience research groups.

Zurich also has a joint neuroscience centre creating synergies between some 440 neuroscientists, or 100 research groups, at the Federal Institute of Technology, Zurich, and Zurich University.

Switzerland was chosen to host the sixth Forum of European Neuroscience based on the strength of its neuroscience research and infrastructure.

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