Decoding the Brain

Exploring the intersection of neuroscience & technology with University of Waterloo Professor Chris Eliasmith.

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A computer that thinks like a human sounds like science fiction, but Chris Eliasmith, Director of the Centre for Theoretical Neuroscience at the University of Waterloo, and his team have recently built what is currently the world’s largest functional brain model. This is pretty exciting because, although many large models of the brain have been built, none of them actually do anything.

Eliasmith’s model, SPAUN, is made up of software that simulates individual brain cells, or neurons, that are connected together as they would be in the human brain. Through it, Eliasmith’s team is hoping to figure out how to make these “neurons” communicate so that they can perform the information processing required to recognize an object, count, or complete different kinds of patterns. By building up large simulations from these component parts we can get a sense of how biology does the same kind of thing.

The benefits of this research are broad reaching. Not only are there medical applications, such as being able to tailor treatment specifically to an individual patient’s brain, but there are lifestyle applications as well. With this technology we can start to build robots and other intelligent entities that would think and behave just like people.

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Chris Eliasmith is the Director of the Centre for Theoretical Neuroscience (CTN) at the University of Waterloo.The CTN brings together researchers across many faculties who are interested in computational and theoretical models of neural systems. Professor Eliasmith has over 100 publications in top venues in philosophy, engineering, computer science, psychology, and neuroscience. Professor Eliasmith was recently elected to the new Royal Society of Canada College of New Scholars, Artists and Scientists. He is also a Canada Research Chair in Theoretical Neuroscience. His book, ‘How to build a brain’ (Oxford, 2013), describes the Semantic Pointer Architecture for constructing large-scale brain models. His team built what is currently the world’s largest functional brain model, ‘Spaun’, and the first to demonstrate realistic behaviour under biological constraints. This ground-breaking work was published in Science (November, 2012) and has been featured by CNN, BBC, Der Spiegel, Popular Science, National Geographic and CBC among many other media outlets.