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Learning from the brain

Computers may be getting ever more reliable, but the human brain still works far more efficiently. What we can derive from this for learning and technical information processing is being studied by scientists – many of whom are early career researchers – in the new Collaborative Research Centre 1461 "Neurotronics"

Kohlstedt, Hansen und Vahl
© Julia Siekmann, Kiel University

Biologically inspired components are what Professor Hermann Kohlstedt (from left), Dr Sandra Hansen, Dr Alexander Vahl and the other members of the new Collaborative Research Centre want to develop.

While we are still in the womb, an enormous number of nerve cells form and connect in our brains. This network forms the basis for learning and memory processes and changes throughout our entire lives. The brain is constantly adapting to new stimuli, which scientists refer to as "neuronal plasticity". This also covers the fact that nerve cells diminish again, for example following the intensive phases of development during which small children learn to walk and talk. "This is no reason for concern, rather it is energy efficient. Only what is really required for processing information is retained, both in the development of an individual person and in evolution over several million years," explained Hermann Kohlstedt, Professor of Nanoelectronics and spokesperson of the new Collaborative Research Centre (CRC) "Neurotronics: bio-inspired information pathways". At this centre, over 60 scientists will research structural and dynamic information processing in model organisms with nerve systems of differing complexity – the freshwater polyp Hydra, the box jellyfish Tripedalia cystophora and the lizard Anolis carolinensis – in order to transfer findings to the development of innovative hardware. For instance, to improve pattern and language recognition or the energy efficiency of technical systems. "Our brain adapts to changing conditions, processes a lot of information in parallel, and requires only around 25 Watts to do so," said Kohlstedt of this performance capability. "And its power supply is already built-in," added Dr Sandra Hansen, board member of the CRC. The materials scientist works on new types of batteries and wants to research electrochemical processes in biological information transfer in the CRC. In principle, they could be similar to the processes in batteries and help to improve on them. Dr Alexander Vahl, also a materials scientist, will investigate how paths can "grow" and disappear between electrical contacts in technical networks in order to transfer signals, similar to connections between two nerve cells. In a previous project, Vahl worked on the development of so-called memristors – storage components that change their electrical resistance based on the charge that flows through them.

Early career researchers like Hansen and Vahl play a central role in the CRC. Together with the participating professors, the two of them presented the plans for the CRC to the German Research Foundation (DFG) – and made an impression: the research institute will support the project with €11.5 million in funding over the next four years. Here, they will be responsible for leading sub-projects where they will gather valuable experience for their own scientific careers, Hansen and Vahl are sure.

They both made a very conscious decision to study materials science at the CAU. "The focus here wasn't on classic structural materials like steel, but on developing new functional materials with nanotechnology methods," said Vahl. Such materials, for example, react independently to external stimuli like light by altering their electrical properties. Having completed their studies and industrial work placements, it was clear to Hansen and Vahl that they wanted to go into science. "What attracts me is combining research and teaching," said Hansen. "The emphasis is on a deep understanding of the topic instead of aiming to develop a specific product within a limited time," added Vahl. After all, research is open-ended; the final result cannot be predicted – and that applies to CRC 1461, too. "Our task is a challenging one, but we have experienced partners and talented young people with a fresh outlook on board," said Kohlstedt with confidence.

Author: Julia Siekmann


Electronics inspired by biology

The research field requires close cooperation between neuroscience, biology, psychology, physics, electrical engineering, materials science, network science and non-linear dynamics. Members of the priority research areas Kiel Nano, Surface and Interface Science and Kiel Life Science from Kiel University are involved in CRC 1461 in the university's capacity as speaker. A further eight universities, non-university research institutes and university medical centres are also involved. (jus)