Extending NWB

The NWB format was designed to be easily extendable. Here we discuss some of the basic functionality in PyNWB for creating Neurodata Extensions (NDX).

See also

For a more in-depth, step-by-step guide on how to create, document, and publish NWB extensions, we highly recommend visiting the extension tutorial on the nwb overview website.

Defining extensions

Extensions should be defined separately from the code that uses the extensions. This design decision is based on the assumption that the extension will be written once, and read or used multiple times. Here, we provide an example of how to create an extension for subsequent use.

The following block of code demonstrates how to create a new namespace, and then add a new neurodata_type to this namespace. Finally, it calls export to save the extensions to disk for downstream use.

from pynwb.spec import NWBAttributeSpec, NWBGroupSpec, NWBNamespaceBuilder

ns_path = "mylab.namespace.yaml"
ext_source = "mylab.extensions.yaml"

ns_builder = NWBNamespaceBuilder(
    "Extension for use in my Lab", "mylab", version="0.1.0"

ns_builder.include_type("ElectricalSeries", namespace="core")

ext = NWBGroupSpec(
    "A custom ElectricalSeries for my lab",
    attributes=[NWBAttributeSpec("trode_id", "the tetrode id", "int")],

ns_builder.add_spec(ext_source, ext)

Running this block will produce two YAML files.

The first file, mylab.namespace.yaml, contains the specification of the namespace.

- doc: Extension for use in my Lab
  name: mylab
  - namespace: core
    - ElectricalSeries
  - source: mylab.extensions.yaml

The second file, mylab.extensions.yaml, contains the details on newly defined types.

- attributes:
  - doc: the tetrode id
    dtype: int
    name: trode_id
  doc: A custom ElectricalSeries for my lab
  neurodata_type_def: TetrodeSeries
  neurodata_type_inc: ElectricalSeries


Detailed documentation of all components and neurodata_types that are part of the core schema of NWB:N are available in the schema docs at http://nwb-schema.readthedocs.io . Before creating a new type from scratch, please have a look at the schema docs to see if using or extending an existing type may solve your problem. Also, the schema docs are helpful when extending an existing type to better understand the design and structure of the neurodata_type you are using.

Using extensions

After an extension has been created, it can be used by downstream code for reading and writing data. There are two main mechanisms for reading and writing extension data with PyNWB. The first involves defining new NWBContainer classes that are then mapped to the neurodata types in the extension.

from hdmf.utils import docval, get_docval, popargs

from pynwb import load_namespaces, register_class
from pynwb.ecephys import ElectricalSeries

ns_path = "mylab.namespace.yaml"

@register_class("TetrodeSeries", "mylab")
class TetrodeSeries(ElectricalSeries):
    __nwbfields__ = ("trode_id",)

        + ({"name": "trode_id", "type": int, "doc": "the tetrode id"},)
    def __init__(self, **kwargs):
        trode_id = popargs("trode_id", kwargs)
        self.trode_id = trode_id


See the API docs for more information about docval, popargs, and get_docval

When extending NWBContainer or NWBContainer subclasses, you should define the class field __nwbfields__. This will tell PyNWB the properties of the NWBContainer extension.

If you do not want to write additional code to read your extensions, PyNWB is able to dynamically create an NWBContainer subclass for use within the PyNWB API. Dynamically created classes can be inspected using the built-in inspect module.

from pynwb import get_class, load_namespaces

ns_path = "mylab.namespace.yaml"

AutoTetrodeSeries = get_class("TetrodeSeries", "mylab")


When defining your own NWBContainer, the subclass name does not need to be the same as the extension type name. However, it is encouraged to keep class and extension names the same for the purposes of readability.

Caching extensions to file

By default, extensions are cached to file so that your NWB file will carry the extensions needed to read the file with it.

To demonstrate this, first we will make some simulated data using our extensions.

from datetime import datetime

from dateutil.tz import tzlocal

from pynwb import NWBFile

start_time = datetime(2017, 4, 3, 11, tzinfo=tzlocal())
create_date = datetime(2017, 4, 15, 12, tzinfo=tzlocal())

nwbfile = NWBFile(
    "demonstrate caching", "NWB456", start_time, file_create_date=create_date

device = nwbfile.create_device(name="trodes_rig123")

electrode_name = "tetrode1"
description = "an example tetrode"
location = "somewhere in the hippocampus"

electrode_group = nwbfile.create_electrode_group(
    electrode_name, description=description, location=location, device=device
for idx in [1, 2, 3, 4]:
electrode_table_region = nwbfile.create_electrode_table_region(
    [0, 2], "the first and third electrodes"

import numpy as np

rate = 10.0
data_len = 1000
data = np.random.rand(data_len * 2).reshape((data_len, 2))
timestamps = np.arange(data_len) / rate

ts = TetrodeSeries(
    # Alternatively, could specify starting_time and rate as follows
    # starting_time=ephys_timestamps[0],
    # rate=rate,
    comments="This data was randomly generated with numpy, using 1234 as the seed",
    description="Random numbers generated with numpy.random.rand",


For more information on writing ElectricalSeries, see Extracellular Electrophysiology Data.

Now that we have some data, lets write our file. You can choose not to cache the spec by setting cache_spec=False in write

from pynwb import NWBHDF5IO

io = NWBHDF5IO("cache_spec_example.nwb", mode="w")


For more information on writing NWB files, see Writing an NWB file.

By default, if a namespace is not already loaded, PyNWB loads the namespace cached in the file. To disable this, set load_namespaces=False in the NWBHDF5IO constructor.

Creating and using a custom MultiContainerInterface

It is sometimes the case that we need a group to hold zero-or-more or one-or-more of the same object. Here we show how to create an extension that defines a group (PotatoSack) that holds multiple objects (Potato) and then how to use the new data types. First, we use pynwb to define the new data types.

from pynwb.spec import NWBAttributeSpec, NWBGroupSpec, NWBNamespaceBuilder

name = "test_multicontainerinterface"
ns_path = name + ".namespace.yaml"
ext_source = name + ".extensions.yaml"

ns_builder = NWBNamespaceBuilder(name + " extensions", name, version="0.1.0")
ns_builder.include_type("NWBDataInterface", namespace="core")

potato = NWBGroupSpec(
    doc="A potato",
            name="weight", doc="weight of potato", dtype="float", required=True
            name="age", doc="age of potato", dtype="float", required=False

potato_sack = NWBGroupSpec(
    doc="A sack of potatoes",

ns_builder.add_spec(ext_source, potato_sack)

Then create Container classes registered to the new data types (this is generally done in a different file)

from pynwb import load_namespaces, register_class
from pynwb.file import MultiContainerInterface, NWBContainer


@register_class("Potato", name)
class Potato(NWBContainer):
    __nwbfields__ = ("name", "weight", "age")

        {"name": "name", "type": str, "doc": "who names a potato?"},
        {"name": "weight", "type": float, "doc": "weight of potato in grams"},
        {"name": "age", "type": float, "doc": "age of potato in days"},
    def __init__(self, **kwargs):
        self.weight = kwargs["weight"]
        self.age = kwargs["age"]

@register_class("PotatoSack", name)
class PotatoSack(MultiContainerInterface):
    __clsconf__ = {
        "attr": "potatos",
        "type": Potato,
        "add": "add_potato",
        "get": "get_potato",
        "create": "create_potato",

Then use the objects (again, this would often be done in a different file).

from datetime import datetime

from dateutil.tz import tzlocal

from pynwb import NWBHDF5IO, NWBFile

# You can add potatoes to a potato sack in different ways
potato_sack = PotatoSack(potatos=Potato(name="potato1", age=2.3, weight=3.0))
potato_sack.add_potato(Potato("potato2", 3.0, 4.0))
potato_sack.create_potato("big_potato", 10.0, 20.0)

nwbfile = NWBFile(
    "a file with metadata", "NB123A", datetime(2018, 6, 1, tzinfo=tzlocal())

pmod = nwbfile.create_processing_module("module_name", "desc")

with NWBHDF5IO("test_multicontainerinterface.nwb", "w") as io:

This is how you read the NWB file (again, this would often be done in a different file).

# from xxx import PotatoSack, Potato
with NWBHDF5IO("test_multicontainerinterface.nwb", "r") as io:
    nwb = io.read()
# note: you can call get_processing_module() with or without the module name as
# an argument. However, if there is more than one module, the name is required.
# Here, there is more than one potato, so the name of the potato is required as
# an argument to get_potato

Example: Cortical Surface Mesh

Here we show how to create extensions by creating a data class for a cortical surface mesh. This data type is particularly important for ECoG data, since we need to know where each electrode is with respect to the gyri and sulci. Surface mesh objects contain two types of data:

  1. vertices, which is an (n, 3) matrix of floats that represents points in 3D space

2. faces, which is an (m, 3) matrix of uints that represents indices of the vertices matrix. Each triplet of points defines a triangular face, and the mesh is comprised of a collection of triangular faces.

First, we set up our extension. I am going to use the name ecog

from pynwb.spec import NWBDatasetSpec, NWBGroupSpec, NWBNamespaceBuilder

name = "ecog"
ns_path = name + ".namespace.yaml"
ext_source = name + ".extensions.yaml"

# Now we define the data structures. We use `NWBDataInterface` as the base type,
# which is the most primitive type you are likely to use as a base. The name of the
# class is `CorticalSurface`, and it requires two matrices, `vertices` and
# `faces`.

surface = NWBGroupSpec(
    doc="brain cortical surface",
            doc="faces for surface, indexes vertices",
            shape=(None, 3),
            dims=("face_number", "vertex_index"),
            doc="vertices for surface, points in 3D space",
            shape=(None, 3),
            dims=("vertex_number", "xyz"),

# Now we set up the builder and add this object

ns_builder = NWBNamespaceBuilder(name + " extensions", name, version="0.1.0")
ns_builder.add_spec(ext_source, surface)

# The above should generate 2 YAML files. `ecog.extensions.yaml`,
# defines the newly defined types
# .. code-block:: yaml
#     # ecog.namespace.yaml
#       groups:
#       - datasets:
#       - dims:
#           - face_number
#           - vertex_index
#           doc: faces for surface, indexes vertices
#           dtype: uint
#           name: faces
#           shape:
#           - null
#           - 3
#       - dims:
#           - vertex_number
#           - xyz
#           doc: vertices for surface, points in 3D space
#           dtype: float
#           name: vertices
#           shape:
#           - null
#           - 3
#       doc: brain cortical surface
#       neurodata_type_def: CorticalSurface
#       neurodata_type_inc: NWBDataInterface
# Finally, we should test the new types to make sure they run as expected

from datetime import datetime

import numpy as np

from pynwb import NWBHDF5IO, NWBFile, get_class, load_namespaces

CorticalSurface = get_class("CorticalSurface", "ecog")

cortical_surface = CorticalSurface(
        [0.0, 1.0, 1.0],
        [1.0, 1.0, 2.0],
        [2.0, 2.0, 1.0],
        [2.0, 1.0, 1.0],
        [1.0, 2.0, 1.0],
    faces=np.array([[0, 1, 2], [1, 2, 3]]).astype("uint"),

nwbfile = NWBFile("my first synthetic recording", "EXAMPLE_ID", datetime.now())

cortex_module = nwbfile.create_processing_module(
    name="cortex", description="description"

with NWBHDF5IO("test_cortical_surface.nwb", "w") as io:

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