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Advances in Neuromorphic Computing and Neuroscience

30 January 2018
Giulio Prisco

Neuromorphic Computing

Many exciting brain science and technology news items released last week, summarized below, show that neuroscience is advancing very fast, with a potential for truly science-fictional developments around the corner.

Brain science also inspired the development of next-generation electronics and computing. Scientists at the US National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) have developed a superconducting artificial synapse. The device, described in a research paper published in Science Advances, could supply a missing piece for brain-inspired “neuromorphic” computers.

The new synapse would be used in neuromorphic computers made of superconducting components, which can transmit electricity without resistance, and therefore, would be more efficient than other designs based on semiconductors or software. "The NIST synapse has lower energy needs than the human synapse, and we don't know of any other artificial synapse that uses less energy," NIST physicist Mike Schneider said.

In related neuromorphic computing news, physicists at the University of Groningen have integrated storage, memory and processing in one brain-like unit, creating a spin-memristor with storage abilities for neuromorphic computing architectures.

Engineers at MIT and other labs have designed an artificial synapse that allows them to precisely control the strength of an electric current flowing across it, similar to the way ions flow between neurons. The team has built a small chip with artificial synapses, made from silicon germanium. In simulations described in a study published in Nature Materials, the researchers found that the chip and its synapses could be used to recognize samples of handwriting, with 95 percent accuracy.

The team is in the process of fabricating a working neuromorphic chip that can carry out handwriting-recognition tasks, not in simulation but in reality. “Ultimately we want a chip as big as a fingernail to replace one big supercomputer,” said researcher Jeehwan Kim.

Besides applications to computer vision and automated decision-making for applications such as self-driving cars and cancer diagnosis, neuromorphic computing could represent a viable path toward human-like artificial intelligence (AI).

To learn about even more visionary neuroscience, I recommend that you watch the video recording of a public online workshop titled “Transcending Biology: Reverse Engineering the Brain,” hosted by the nonprofit Carboncopies on Sunday. The workshop was live streamed via Google Hangouts on Air, and the full video recording is now online on YouTube.

The workshop introduced brain mapping and whole brain emulation research, as well as the Carboncopies organization, providing an update of current status and activities, with the participation of renowned neuroscientists including Prof. Theodore Berger (USC), Prof. Tony Zador (CSHL), Dr. Shawn Mikula (NIPS Japan), Dr. Adam Marblestone (MIT/Kernel), Dr. Randal Koene (Carboncopies, Chairman), Dr. Diana Deca (USC), and Dr. Sim Bamford.

For less tech-intensive news that confirms well-known health and lifestyle recommendations (never forget those), scientists have once more confirmed that exercise is good for health. Also, curcumin, found in Indian curry, has been shown to improve memory and mood in people with mild, age-related memory loss.

Miniaturized needle for high-precision delivery of drugs to the brain. MIT researchers have devised a miniaturized system that can deliver tiny quantities of medicine to brain regions as small as 1 cubic millimeter. The system, described in a research paper published in Science Translational Medicine, could make it possible to treat diseases that affect very specific brain circuits, without interfering with the normal function of the rest of the brain.

Tiny fibers permit studying the brain with multiple inputs and outputs. Scientists at MIT and other labs have shown that a single flexible fiber no bigger than a human hair is able to deliver a combination of genetic, optical, electrical, and chemical signals back and forth into the brain. The new fibers, designed to mimic the softness and flexibility of brain tissue and developed through a collaboration among material scientists, chemists, biologists, and other specialists, are described in a study published in Nature Neuroscience.

Rapid setup of Braingate brain-computer interface for tetraplegic patients. Scientists at Brown University have developed a new approach to calibrating the BrainGate brain-computer interface. With the new calibration approach, described in a research paper published in Journal of Neural Engineering, three clinical trial participants with tetraplegia were able to gain control of a computer cursor after just one simple calibration step.

Nanoparticle vaccine for influenza. Researchers at Georgia State University have developed a universal vaccine to combat influenza A viruses that produces long-lasting immunity in mice and protects them against the limitations of seasonal flu vaccines. The vaccine, described in a study published in Nature Communications, is based on double-layered protein nanoparticles that target the inside of a protein on the surface of the virus.

Artificial molecules for cancer immunotherapy. Researchers at the Ecole Polytechnique Federale de Lausanne (EPFL) have created artificial molecules that can help the immune system to recognize and attack cancer tumors. A research paper published in Nature Methods describes artificial receptors that enable specialized immune cells in the vaccine to selectively and efficiently capture aberrant molecules from a tumor and present them to the immune system’s killer T cells, which will then attack and destroy the cancer cells.

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