In today’s increasingly digital world people are always talking about “artificial intelligence” and “neural networks”, which all too often makes it sound as if we could teach machines to think. And yet the human brain is a highly complex network comprising more than 80 billion nerve cells. The rules that dictate how it is able to produce and store thoughts and feelings continue to be shrouded in mystery.
Neuroscience as an interdisciplinary field of study
“We still do not have even a rudimentary understanding of any of this”, admitted leading brain researchers such as Wolf Singer, one of the founding directors of the Frankfurt Max Planck Institute for Brain Research, in a manifesto (in German only) they published in 2004. Ten years later, a group of neurobiologists, psychiatrists, psychologists and philosophers in Germany issued a kind of counter-manifesto in which they accused brain researchers of having manoeuvred themselves into a blind alley by focusing solely on the chemical and physical processes in the brain. They called for a “reflective approach to neuroscience” that would also include psychology and philosophy.
Researching how we forget
Onur Güntürkün, a professor of biopsychology at Ruhr-Universität Bochum (RUB), has long been combining methods of experimental psychology and neurobiology in his study of the processes that take place in individual neurons, cell clusters and regions of the brain and that relate to our behaviour. “Both levels of research are necessary if we are to unravel our mental processes”, says Güntürkün. Since 2017 he has been working with neurologists, biologists and psychologists on a twelve-year research project that aims to understand what is known as extinction learning. A form of forgetting, this can result in anxiety disorders and chronic pain if it malfunctions. One of the goals of this long-term research project is therefore to design new treatment methods.
Curing mental disorders and senile dementia
Such treatments are urgently needed given that roughly one woman in five and one man in ten suffer from anxiety disorders in Germany. Mental disorders are common worldwide and are ranked sixth in a list of the 15 most likely causes of years of life lost due to illness or premature death. They are followed in ninth place by neurological diseases, which also include senile dementia – one of the most frequent psychiatric conditions in old age. One of the areas being researched at the Paul Flechsig Institute of Brain Research at Leipzig University is how such neurodegenerative disorders occur. The research is focused on the processes at cellular level and on developing new strategies for diagnosis and therapy. To this end, the institute is collaborating with the Max Planck Institute for Human Cognitive and Brain Sciences. Likewise based in Leipzig, its researchers concentrate on higher brain functions in humans such as language, emotions and social behaviour. Another field in which they specialise is the plasticity of the brain – the ability of individual synapses, nerve cells and areas of the brain to adapt according to the way they are used.
Understanding the brain’s capacity for renewal
This capacity for renewal also involves the adult brain using stem cells to generate new neurons. Known as neurogenesis, this process is being studied by the neuroscientist Gerd Kempermann and his research group at the Center for Regenerative Therapies at Technische Universität (TU) Dresden. “The new nerve cells help the hippocampus, which is the ‘gateway to memory’ in our brain, to adapt flexibly to new situations – for as long as we live”, says Kempermann.
Artificial and natural intelligence
Computer-assisted neuroscience is concentrated in Berlin. Brain researchers at the Bernstein Center for Computational Neuroscience (BCCN) combine laboratory experiments with the methods used in computer science and mathematics. They develop mathematical models with a view to understanding how the brain processes information. John-Dylan Haynes, director of the Berlin Center for Advanced Neuroimaging (BCAN), is looking at how information is processed in the brain, both consciously and unconsciously, and which neuronal processes form the basis for intentional actions and their control.
What do artificial and natural intelligence have in common? According to which principles do they function? These questions are the focus of the “Science of Intelligence” cluster that was established in 2019. The scientists involved, from the fields of robotics, psychology, philosophy and behavioural research, are keen to fundamentally advance our understanding of what intelligence is – and to use this knowledge to create new “intelligent” technologies.
Human Brain Project
500 researchers from over 100 universities, university hospitals and research institutions all over Europe have been working for six years now to set up a high-tech infrastructure for 21st century neuroscientific research. In the initial two project phases, the European Commission provided the research project with 143 million euros in funding, and for the current phase that began in 2018 it is making available 88 million euros. Six technology platforms have been created in the meantime, including a network of supercomputing centres run by Forschungszentrum in Jülich, Germany.More