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Study the Brain, Plan for the Future

Showcased the first promising results for the Human Brain Project
It is one of projects on which the EU has been most investing in recent years. 1.19 billion Euro by 2023. Currently, a total of 113 institutions and research entities all over the world are involved in it, among which there is LENS, the European Laboratory for Non-linear Spectroscopy and the University of Florence itself. It is one of the most innovative challenges in the development of knowledge. We are talking about Human Brain Project (HBP) a veritable network of international research with the ultimate goal of building a simulator of the entire brain activity. The annual meeting of the project was held in Florence between 12 and 15 October: on day one HBP was presented to the public at large with an Open Day in which the results obtained so far were illustrated. We talk about it with the coordinator of the event, Francesco Saverio Pavone, director of LENS and member of the Science and Infrastructure Board of HBP.

Professor Pavone, HBP's research launches us into the future. Can you detail the scope of this highly interdisciplinary and international work?
HBP's goal is to build a simulator of the entire human brain activity, by putting together information and imaging that researchers around the world have acquired on the functioning and the morphology of molecules, neurones and neuronal circuits, and match them with those on the most powerful databases currently developed thanks to ICT technology.
What does a complete mapping of the brain entails?A model with 100 billion neurones – such as the number we think our brain is made up of – would allow us to study possible therapies to fight degenerative illnesses of the nervous system. We would gain a better understanding of the neural bases of cognition, behaviour, memory and pathologies, thus opening the path to new treatments. Furthermore, another scope of application with immense possibilities is the realisation of intelligent supercomputers. 

The human brain is a masterpiece of complexity and efficiency.
Each neurone gets in contact with many other cells, near and far, forming an immense network of connections through which a myriad of information is exchanged. The function of the nervous system itself is based on communication among large clusters of neurone throughout different regions of the brain. In order to fully understand the functioning of this network it is indispensable to map these connections at the level of the single cell within the entire brain.

HBP is made out of 12 sub-projects involving more than 100 research units. In one of them, LENS is at the forefront. What does it entail and what are the results achieved so far?
We are collaborating with our colleagues from the departments of NEUROFARBA (Neurosciences, Psychology, Drug Research and Child Health), Physics and Astronomy and Information Engineering besides Meyer University Hospital.

Are there examples of other important results achieved so far within HBP?
Certainly. One of them is the outcome of a project dealing with a supercomputer. The research group headed by Karlheinz Meier, of the University of Heidelberg, has built a prototype of a neuromorphic chip made with the usual material, silicon, but with a different architecture, inspired by the functioning of the brain. The peculiarity of this product is given by the possibility to “parallelise”, that is to process in parallel (the way the brain does it) data and operations achieving an exceptional energetic efficiency with significant savings given that currently a supercomputer uses 1 billion times more energy than a brain to do an operation (tens of Gigawatts compared to the 20 Watt used by the brain).
In a nutshell, these kind of chips can imitate the way biological neuronal networks respond and adapt themselves “plastically” when they come in contact with external stimuli.
Can you tell us of another HBP groundbreaking result?
A significant result has been reached by another German research group, lead by Katrin Amunts of the University of Düsseldorf with a research centre in Jülich through the analysis at the broad range microscope of a human brain – we are talking, of course, of donated organs. By exploiting the fact that brain fibres alter the passage of light changing its polarisation – a phenomenon called bi-refraction – researchers have reconstructed the spatial distribution in 3D of the nervous connection networks. Such a result will allow scientists to know the alterations happening when in presence of specific type of pathologies and will provide data for simulations on various areas of the brain.
23 October 2016