0 11 mins 5 yrs

Human Brain Project: EU’s €1BILLION plan to grow SILICON BRAINS in a lab

A EUROPEAN UNION (EU) funded project is pioneering cutting-edge research into the human brain and is inspiring artificial intelligence breakthroughs, its scientific director has exclusively revealed.

The Human Brain Project (HBP) is the EU’s £899 (€1billion) flagship science initiative working on developing human-machine hybrids. The ambitious enterprise’s primary aim is to simulate the human brain using computers, improving science and technology on the way.

Professor Katrin Amunts, HBP’s scientific director, believes tangible results are starting to arrive, halfway through the Human Brain Project’s ten-year tenure. She said: “We are trying to emulate the capabilities of the brain, we are trying to understand the brain’s principles and the organisational rules behind cognitive function.”

Human Brain Project: Neuromorphic machines mimic the brain’s parallel communication architecture (Image: Human Brain Project)

“What we are trying to do at HBP is try and understand how we can use our knowledge about brain organisation and transfer it, for instance, to new computing devices called neuromorphic devices.”

The Human Brain Project is developing two major neuromorphic machines; Manchester University’s SpiNNaker and the University of Heidelberg’s BrainscaleS.

SpiNNaker is unique because, unlike traditional computers, it does not communicate by sending large amounts of information from point A to B.

Instead, it mimics the massively parallel communication architecture of the brain, sending billions of small amounts of information simultaneously to thousands of different destinations.

The BrainScaleS project aims to understand information processing in the brain at different scales ranging from individual neurons to whole functional brain areas.

The project also wants to extract generic theoretical principles of brain function and to use this knowledge to build artificial cognitive systems. Neuromorphic hardware – emulating brain function – is the more likely candidate for creating effective and efficient next-generation computers, believes Professor Amunts.

She said:

“Artificial intelligence is playing an increasing role in industry, society, education and medicine – everywhere – but when we look at the structure of these networks, they look rather simple, as compared to what we have in the brain.

“And to understand how these natural networks in our brain are so efficient at some tasks would be a very natural way to also provide input for AI and for new computers.

“And this is what we are trying to do, we want to make computers more neuro-inspired than ever.”

But Professor Amunts also believes it is the collaborative process as well as scientific successes that are important.

The expert said: “We have quite a few success stories in terms of brain medicine, basic neuroscience theory, computing technology, and these can be seen in the science publications which are coming out, the patents that are being submitted, to the research.

“But perhaps even more important, we have created a research community that is united by the need to understand the brain, and that is prizing the development of new ICT (Information, Communication and Technology) tools and benefits from these tools.

“And perhaps one of the biggest successes is that we achieved this – we created this environment where we research the human brain benefiting medicine and technology – we have found a fantastic framework to create these synergies.”

The scientific director listed two recent success stories from the five-year-old project, saying: “One of the HBP’s big advantages is we have different sciences work together, which has resulted in a new personalised approach for patients undergoing surgery for epilepsy.

“Epilepsy is a very bad disease and the outcome of surgery is uncertain.

“So what we did at HBP is use new imaging to scan the patients before the surgery and then make a very individual model of their brain connections, added some theory, then suggested to the surgeon how the operation should best be performed.

“This illustrates our work; the neuroscience approach, neuro-imaging models, theory and resultant medicine all coming together in this project.”

And another example offered is the development of a neural prosthesis for the blind.

A fellow researcher in Amsterdam is develioing a brain prosthesis which can help peopel without sight.

Professor Amunts said: “He is using basic neuroscience knowledge explaining how visual information is processed the brain.

“He then develops a physical prothesis, and uses AI to guide him, and at the end you have a new therapy.”

Brains of smarter people have bigger and faster neurons

Scientists working within the Human Brain Project have for the first time uncovered a direct relation between brain cell size and IQ level. As they describe in the journal eLife, larger neurons in the so-called temporal lobe of the brain that generate electrical signals with higher speed are related to faster processing rates and intelligence level as assessed in standard IQ testing.

Our brain works through the activity of its almost 100 billion neurons that each collect, process and pass on information in the form of electrical signals. But so far, not much had been known about how the differences in the properties of these cells from person to person matter for human cognitive abilities like intelligence.

Summary of the approach: The scientist were able to collect an information-rich multidimensional data set from human subjects including single cell physiology, neuronal morphology, MRI and IQ test scores. The area of the brain highlighted in blue indicates the location of cortical thickness measurements, The black square indicates the typical origin of resected cortical tissue

Some evidence had suggested that the size of so-called dendrites, the long branched out protrusions through which each neuron receives signals from thousands of other cells, might play a role: Especially in brain areas that integrate different types of information, such as the frontal and temporal lobes, brain cells have bigger dendrites.

In these brain areas the cortex, where most of the neurons are, is also thicker in people with higher IQ. Theoretical studies additionally predicted that larger dendrites may help cells to initiate electrical signals faster.

But because of the very difficult access to human living neurons it was an open question until now whether any of these cellular properties could be proven to actually relate to human intelligence.

A collaboration of basic neuroscientists at the Free University Amsterdam with neurosurgeons and clinical psychologists at Amsterdam University Medical Center now made it possible to find out whether smarter brains are indeed better equipped with faster and bigger cells. “The study is the first to take the single cell perspective and link cellular properties to human intelligence”, explains senior author Prof. Huib Mansvelder, an expert for cellular neuroscience who is working within the Human Brain Project.

The Dutch team studied 46 people who needed surgery for brain tumours or epilepsy. Each patient took an IQ test before the operation, as part of a pre-surgery assessment. To access the diseased part deep in the brain, surgeons commonly have to remove small undamaged samples of temporal lobe.

These samples still contained living cells that the scientists studied. Both the size and dendritic complexity of the cells, as well as their electrical signals – so called action potentials – were measured in the lab and compared with the IQ scores.

They found that cells from people with higher IQ have longer, more complex dendrites and faster action potentials especially during increased activity. With computational modelling they could also show that neurons with larger dendrites and faster action potentials can process more information coming in and can pass more detailed information on to other neurons.

“Traditionally, research on human intelligence focuses on three main strategies: brain imaging studies of brain structure and function, genetic studies to find genes associated with intelligence, and behavioural psychology”, explains Huib Mansvelder Behavioural psychological studies have shown that higher IQ scores are associated with faster reaction times of subjects.

The new findings provide a cellular explanation for this association and links findings from the separate approaches, explaining how identified genes for intelligence can lead to increased cortical thickness, larger neurons as well as faster reaction times in people with higher IQ.

Thereby, the study connects levels of organisation in the human brain from function of cells to circuits to behaviour. “That is one of the major goals for us working together with all these partners from other disciplines of neuroscience in the Human Brain Project, to link the different levels of knowledge about the brain”, the scientist says.

Follow-up studies are already planned. “As the IQ number is the summarised result of a wide range of tests, we now have the opportunity to dig into the data and have a closer look at which skills in particular are correlated the most to these cell features.”

Faster action potentials and bigger dendrites to receive and process more synaptic information may seem like a small difference between neurons. However, since our brain consists of close to 100 billion neurons, this effect rapidly multiplies to a large effect on the computational potential of the brain as a whole: “It’s a small step at the level of a single neuron, a giant leap for the computational power of the brain”, says Mansvelder.


Natalia A. Goriounova, Djai B. Heyer, René Wilbers, Matthijs B. Verhoog, Michele Giugliano, Christophe Verbist, Joshua Obermayer, Amber Kerkhofs, Harriët Smeding, Maaike Verberne, Sander Idema, Johannes C. Baayen, Anton W. Pieneman, Christiaan P.J. de Kock, Martin Klein, Huibert D. Mansvelder.