Neural systems language: A formal modeling language for the systematic description, unambiguous communication, and automated digital curation of neural connectivity


Correspondence to: Larry W. Swanson, 3641 Watt Way, No. 428, Department of Biological Sciences, University of Southern California, Los Angeles, CA 90089-2520. E-mail:


Systematic description and the unambiguous communication of findings and models remain among the unresolved fundamental challenges in systems neuroscience. No common descriptive frameworks exist to describe systematically the connective architecture of the nervous system, even at the grossest level of observation. Furthermore, the accelerating volume of novel data generated on neural connectivity outpaces the rate at which this data is curated into neuroinformatics databases to synthesize digitally systems-level insights from disjointed reports and observations. To help address these challenges, we propose the Neural Systems Language (NSyL). NSyL is a modeling language to be used by investigators to encode and communicate systematically reports of neural connectivity from neuroanatomy and brain imaging. NSyL engenders systematic description and communication of connectivity irrespective of the animal taxon described, experimental or observational technique implemented, or nomenclature referenced. As a language, NSyL is internally consistent, concise, and comprehensible to both humans and computers. NSyL is a promising development for systematizing the representation of neural architecture, effectively managing the increasing volume of data on neural connectivity and streamlining systems neuroscience research. Here we present similar precedent systems, how NSyL extends existing frameworks, and the reasoning behind NSyL's development. We explore NSyL's potential for balancing robustness and consistency in representation by encoding previously reported assertions of connectivity from the literature as examples. Finally, we propose and discuss the implications of a framework for how NSyL will be digitally implemented in the future to streamline curation of experimental results and bridge the gaps among anatomists, imagers, and neuroinformatics databases. J. Comp. Neurol. 521: 2889–2906, 2013. © 2013 Wiley Periodicals, Inc.