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Secrets of the Brain: Researchers decipher parts of the neuronal code

22 December 2009 TU Graz

The human brain works at a far higher level of complexity than previously thought. What has been given little attention up to now in the information processing of neuronal circuits has been the time factor. “Liquid computing” – a new theory about how these complex networks of nerve cells actually work from computer scientists at Graz University of Technology – has just passed its first test. An interdisciplinary co-operation with neuroscientists from the Max-Planck Institute (MPI) for Brain Research in Frankfurt managed to show that early processing stages in the brain pool information over a longer period. For the evaluation of the experiments, the researchers also had to crack the neuronal code. The scientists published the new findings of their research work, which is funded by the Austrian Science Fund FWF in Austria, in the current edition of “PLoS Biology”, one of the most prestigious journals in this field.

The idea that the brain processes information step by step appears out of date. “The human brain does not work on the principle of the assembly line. In processing information, it is possible that time is treated much more flexibly than previously thought“, explained Wolfgang Maass, head of the Institute for Theoretical Computer Science at Graz University of Technology.

Like waves on a pool

His Graz colleague, Stefan Häusler, compares the basic principle with a surface of water. “The brain works like a pond in which stones are thrown. The waves caused by this don’t disappear immediately, but rather overlap with each other and collect information about how many stones were thrown in and how big they were. The main difference is just that the waves in the brain spread in a network of neurons and at very high speed“, explained Stefan Häusler.

The theory of “liquid computing“ was then experimentally investigated for the first time in co-operation with Frankfurt brain researchers Danko Nikolić and Wolf Singer. However, the evaluation of the experiments proved a challenge for the computer scientists. They had to crack the coding scheme by which large numbers of neurons encode information in a distributed manner. They were able achieve this with the help of new methods from automated pattern recognition.

Simulating the human brain as vision

The underlying theory of liquid computing was developed by Swiss neuroscientist Henry Markram together with Graz University of Technology   computer scientist Maass who has only this year published his new model for the calculations in the human brain in the prestigious “Nature Reviews in Neuroscience”. This theory of information processing in neuronal circuits in the brain was experimentally investigated.

“The results from the collaboration with the MPI, led by well-known brain researcher Wolf Singer, is one of those rare cases where a hypothesis on the organization of computations in the brain that emerged from computer science theory was tested through neurobiological experiments, and has been confirmed“, added Wolfgang Maass. The vision of the researchers is to develop new perspectives to better understand the interaction of the cells in the brain, ultimately ranging to comprehensively simulating parts of the brain.

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