NWB File Basics

This example will focus on the basics of working with an NWBFile object, including writing and reading of an NWB file, and giving you an introduction to the basic data types. Before we dive into code showing how to use an NWBFile, we first provide a brief overview of the basic concepts of NWB. If you are already familiar with the concepts of TimeSeries and Processing Modules, then feel free to skip the Background: Basic concepts part and go directly to The NWB file.

Background: Basic concepts

In the NWB Format, each experimental session is typically represented by a separate NWB file. NWB files are represented in PyNWB by NWBFile objects which provide functionality for creating and retrieving:

  • TimeSeries datasets, i.e., objects for storing time series data

  • Processing Modules, i.e., objects for storing and grouping analyses, and

  • experimental metadata and other metadata related to data provenance.

The following sections describe the TimeSeries and ProcessingModules classes in further detail.


TimeSeries objects store time series data and correspond to the TimeSeries specifications provided by the NWB Format . Like the NWB specification, TimeSeries Python objects follow an object-oriented inheritance pattern, i.e., the class TimeSeries serves as the base class for all other TimeSeries types, such as, ElectricalSeries, which itself may have further subtypes, e.g., SpikeEventSeries.

See also

For your reference, NWB defines the following main TimeSeries subtypes:

Processing Modules

Processing modules are objects that group together common analyses done during processing of data. Processing module objects are unique collections of analysis results. To standardize the storage of common analyses, NWB provides the concept of an NWBDataInterface, where the output of common analyses are represented as objects that extend the NWBDataInterface class. In most cases, you will not need to interact with the NWBDataInterface class directly. More commonly, you will be creating instances of classes that extend this class.

See also

For your reference, NWB defines the following main analysis NWBDataInterface subtypes:


In addition to NWBContainer, which functions as a common base type for Group objects, NWBData provides a common base for the specification of datasets in the NWB format.

The following examples will reference variables that may not be defined within the block they are used in. For clarity, we define them here:

import numpy as np
from pynwb import NWBFile, TimeSeries, NWBHDF5IO
from pynwb.epoch import TimeIntervals
from pynwb.file import Subject
from pynwb.behavior import SpatialSeries, Position
from datetime import datetime
from dateutil import tz

The NWB file

An NWBFile represents a single session of an experiment. Each NWBFile must have a session description, identifier, and session start time. Importantly, the session start time is the reference time for all timestamps in the file. For instance, an event with a timestamp of 0 in the file means the event occurred exactly at the session start time.

Create an NWBFile object with the required fields (session_description, identifier, session_start_time) and additional metadata.


Use keyword arguments when constructing NWBFile objects.

session_start_time = datetime(2018, 4, 25, 2, 30, 3, tzinfo=tz.gettz("US/Pacific"))

nwbfile = NWBFile(
    session_description="Mouse exploring an open field",  # required
    identifier="Mouse5_Day3",  # required
    session_start_time=session_start_time,  # required
    session_id="session_1234",  # optional
    experimenter="My Name",  # optional
    lab="My Lab Name",  # optional
    institution="University of My Institution",  # optional
    related_publications="DOI:10.1016/j.neuron.2016.12.011",  # optional

Subject Information

In the Subject object we can store information about the experimental subject, such as age, species, genotype, sex, and a description.

subject UML diagram

The fields in the Subject object are all free-form text (any format will be valid), however it is recommended to follow particular conventions to help software tools interpret the data:

  • age: ISO 8601 Duration format, e.g., "P90D" for 90 days old

  • species: The formal latin binomial nomenclature, e.g., "Mus musculus", "Homo sapiens"

  • sex: Single letter abbreviation, e.g., "F" (female), "M" (male), "U" (unknown), and "O" (other)

Add the subject information to the NWBFile by setting the subject field to the new Subject object.

nwbfile.subject = Subject(
    description="mouse 5",
    species="Mus musculus",

Time Series Data

TimeSeries is a common base class for measurements sampled over time, and provides fields for data and timestamps (regularly or irregularly sampled). You will also need to supply the name and unit of measurement (SI unit).

timeseries UML diagram

For instance, we can store a TimeSeries data where recording started 0.0 seconds after start_time and sampled every second:

data = list(range(100, 200, 10))
time_series_with_rate = TimeSeries(

For irregularly sampled recordings, we need to provide the timestamps for the data:

timestamps = list(range(10))
time_series_with_timestamps = TimeSeries(

TimeSeries objects can be added directly to NWBFile using:


We can access the TimeSeries object 'test_timeseries' in NWBFile from acquisition:


or using the get_acquisition method:


Spatial Series and Position

SpatialSeries is a subclass of TimeSeries that represents the spatial position of an animal over time.

spatialseries UML diagram

Create a SpatialSeries object named "SpatialSeries" with some fake data.

# create fake data with shape (50, 2)
# the first dimension should always represent time
position_data = np.array([np.linspace(0, 10, 50), np.linspace(0, 8, 50)]).T
position_timestamps = np.linspace(0, 50) / 200

spatial_series_obj = SpatialSeries(
    description="(x,y) position in open field",
    reference_frame="(0,0) is bottom left corner",

To help data analysis and visualization tools know that this SpatialSeries object represents the position of the subject, store the SpatialSeries object inside of a Position object, which can hold one or more SpatialSeries objects.

position UML diagram

Create a Position object named "Position" 1.

# name is set to "Position" by default
position_obj = Position(spatial_series=spatial_series_obj)

Behavior Processing Module

ProcessingModule is a container for data interfaces that are related to a particular processing workflow. NWB differentiates between raw, acquired data (acquisition), which should never change, and processed data (processing), which are the results of preprocessing algorithms and could change. Processing modules can be thought of as folders within the file for storing the related processed data.


Use the NWB schema module names as processing module names where appropriate. These are: "behavior", "ecephys", "icephys", "ophys", "ogen", "retinotopy", and "misc".

Let’s assume that the subject’s position was computed from a video tracking algorithm, so it would be classified as processed data.

Create a processing module called "behavior" for storing behavioral data in the NWBFile and add the Position object to the processing module using the create_processing_module method:

behavior_module = nwbfile.create_processing_module(
    name="behavior", description="processed behavioral data"
behavior UML diagram

Once the behavior processing module is added to the NWBFile, you can access it with:


Writing an NWB file

NWB I/O is carried out using the NWBHDF5IO class 2. This class is responsible for mapping an NWBFile object into HDF5 according to the NWB schema.

To write an NWBFile, use the write method.

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

You can also use NWBHDF5IO as a context manager:

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

Reading an NWB file

As with writing, reading is also carried out using the NWBHDF5IO class. To read the NWB file we just wrote, use another NWBHDF5IO object, and use the read method to retrieve an NWBFile object.

Data arrays are read passively from the file. Accessing the data attribute of the TimeSeries object does not read the data values, but presents an HDF5 object that can be indexed to read data. You can use the [:] operator to read the entire data array into memory.

with NWBHDF5IO("basics_tutorial.nwb", "r") as io:
    read_nwbfile = io.read()

It is often preferable to read only a portion of the data. To do this, index or slice into the data attribute just like if you were indexing or slicing a numpy array.

with NWBHDF5IO("basics_tutorial.nwb", "r") as io:
    read_nwbfile = io.read()


If you use NWBHDF5IO as a context manager during read, be aware that the NWBHDF5IO gets closed and when the context completes and the data will not be available outside of the context manager 3.

Accessing data

We can also access the SpatialSeries data by referencing the names of the objects in the hierarchy that contain it. We can access a processing module by indexing "nwbfile.processing" with the name of the processing module, "behavior".

Then, we can access the Position object inside of the "behavior" processing module by indexing it with the name of the Position object, "Position".

Finally, we can access the SpatialSeries object inside of the Position object by indexing it with the name of the SpatialSeries object, "SpatialSeries".

with NWBHDF5IO("basics_tutorial.nwb", "r") as io:
    read_nwbfile = io.read()

Reusing timestamps

When working with multi-modal data, it can be convenient and efficient to store timestamps once and associate multiple data with the single timestamps instance. PyNWB enables this by letting you reuse timestamps across TimeSeries objects. To reuse a TimeSeries timestamps in a new TimeSeries, pass the existing TimeSeries as the new TimeSeries timestamps:

data = list(range(101, 201, 10))
reuse_ts = TimeSeries(

Time Intervals

The following provides a brief introduction to managing annotations in time via TimeIntervals. See the Annotating Time Intervals tutorial for a more detailed introduction to TimeIntervals.


Trials are stored in pynwb.epoch.TimeIntervals object which is a subclass of pynwb.core.DynamicTable. pynwb.core.DynamicTable objects are used to store tabular metadata throughout NWB, including trials, electrodes and sorted units. They offer flexibility for tabular data by allowing required columns, optional columns, and custom columns which are not defined in the standard.

trials UML diagram

The trials pynwb.core.DynamicTable can be thought of as a table with this structure:

trials table example

Trials can be added to the NWBFile using the methods add_trial_column and add_trial We can add custom, user-defined columns to the trials table to hold data and metadata specific to this experiment or session. By default, NWBFile only requires the start_time and end_time of the trial. Additional columns can be added using the add_trial_column method.

Continue adding to our NWBFile by creating a new column for the trials table named 'correct', which will be a boolean array. Once all columns have been added, trial data can be populated using add_trial.

    description="whether the trial was correct",
nwbfile.add_trial(start_time=1.0, stop_time=5.0, correct=True)
nwbfile.add_trial(start_time=6.0, stop_time=10.0, correct=False)

Tabular data such as trials can be converted to a DataFrame.



Epochs can be added to an NWB file using the method add_epoch. The first and second arguments are the start time and stop times, respectively. The third argument is one or more tags for labeling the epoch, and the fourth argument is a list of all the TimeSeries that the epoch applies to.

    tags=["first", "example"],

    tags=["second", "example"],

Other time intervals

Both epochs and trials are of of data type TimeIntervals, which is a type of DynamicTable for storing information about time intervals. "epochs" and "trials" are the two default names for TimeIntervals objects, but you can also add your own

sleep_stages = TimeIntervals(
    description="intervals for each sleep stage as determined by EEG",

sleep_stages.add_column(name="stage", description="stage of sleep")
sleep_stages.add_column(name="confidence", description="confidence in stage (0-1)")

sleep_stages.add_row(start_time=0.3, stop_time=0.5, stage=1, confidence=0.5)
sleep_stages.add_row(start_time=0.7, stop_time=0.9, stage=2, confidence=0.99)
sleep_stages.add_row(start_time=1.3, stop_time=3.0, stage=3, confidence=0.7)


Now we overwrite the file with all of the data

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

Appending to an NWB file

Using functionality discussed above, NWB allows appending to files. To append to a file, you must read the file, add new components, and then write the file. Reading and writing is carried out using NWBHDF5IO. When reading the NWBFile, you must specify that you intend to modify it by setting the mode argument in the NWBHDF5IO constructor to 'a'. After you have read the file, you can add 4 new data to it using the standard write/add functionality demonstrated above.

Let’s see how this works by adding another TimeSeries to the BehavioralTimeSeries interface we created above.

First, read the file and get the interface object.

io = NWBHDF5IO("basics_tutorial.nwb", mode="a")
nwbfile = io.read()
position = nwbfile.processing["behavior"].data_interfaces["Position"]

Next, add a new SpatialSeries.

data = list(range(300, 400, 10))
timestamps = list(range(10))

new_spatial_series = SpatialSeries(

Finally, write the changes back to the file and close it.


Some data interface objects have a default name. This default name is the type of the data interface. For example, the default name for ImageSegmentation is “ImageSegmentation” and the default name for EventWaveform is “EventWaveform”.


HDF5 is currently the only backend supported by NWB.


Neurodata sets can be very large, so individual components of the dataset are only loaded into memory when you request them. This functionality is only possible if an open file handle is kept around until users want to load data.


NWB only supports adding to files. Removal and modifying of existing data is not allowed.

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