Multidisciplinary Brain Power

Engineers and scientists at the Technion are increasing collaborations to intensify and expand research and development in neuroscience and technology.

Prof. Jackie Schiller

Prof. Jackie Schiller

In recent years, researchers from diverse Technion faculties have forged an open connection in order to expand and deepen the study of brain function, from high-order cognition to basic biological mechanisms: decision making; learning and memory; sensory perception; motor control; the relationship between the immune system and the brain; basic biological processes in neurons and supportive cells in the brain; communication between neurons and more. Beyond understanding how the brain works, several researchers are also looking for ways to repair damage to the brain and to find solutions to neurological diseases.

For example, Prof. Miriam Zacksenhouse of the Faculty of Mechanical Engineering is developing technologies for operating electronic devices using brain activity. Prof. Yoram Gutfreund of the Rappaport Faculty of Medicine is studying the owl’s unique auditory system and spatial orientation. Prof. Yitzhak Schiller of the Faculty of Medicine is inventing innovative methods for treating epilepsy and Parkinson’s disease. Prof. Ron Meir of the Faculty of Electrical Engineering is studying and developing artificial neural networks that are displaying unprecedented performance in the areas of learning and pattern recognition.

Prof. Ido Erev of the Faculty of Industrial Engineering & Management is a psychologist who studies basic decision-making and learning processes. “Today, after many years of behavioral research, I understand that physiological data from brain research will enable me to check whether my assumptions are correct and to gain a better understanding of  mechanisms such as decision-making,” he said.

Prof. Itamar Kahn of the Faculty of Medicine is using fMRI technology to study brain activity responsible for the integration of information from the sensory and motor systems. He also studies how failures in these processes can be responsible for developmental brain disorders. “Mainly, I’m trying to understand disruptions in this system, and it is clear to me that cooperation with engineers could lead not only to a better understanding, but also to interesting robotic applications that will be run directly on the brain and will aid in activities such as walking.”

Electrical Engineer Dr. Shahar Kvatinsky is developing non-standard computer architectures inspired by the brain, concentrating primarily on neuromorphic computers that mimic the operating mechanism of the cerebral cortex. “The classic computer comprises a calculation unit (CPU) and a storage unit (memory); which is not how the brain is structured, mainly lacking the brain’s ability to constantly change its connectivity. If we design computers that are inspired by the brain and contain components that function similarly to synapses and neurons, they will perform human activities such as face recognition far more efficiently than existing computers. Hence, the need for collaboration between engineers and neuroscientists,” he says.

“In recent decades, the field of brain research has become diverse and multidisciplinary,” explains Prof. Jackie Schiller of the Rappaport Faculty of Medicine. “Engineering tools are an integral part of the development of brain research and the application of brain devices as a solution for motor and cognitive impairments. Artificial systems that mimic the human brain have tremendous potential. Today, it’s clear to us that only synergy between the various biological, computational and engineering disciplines will lead to significant progress in our understanding of the brain and its functions. What we need here is extensive and multidisciplinary research activity based on coherent in-depth theoretical work and on preclinical and clinical studies.”

The new Technion-wide research group, headed by Prof. Jackie Schiller, includes researchers from many and varied faculties: Prof. Yonina Eldar (Electrical Engineering), Prof. Simone Englender (Medicine), Assistant Prof. Rakefet Ackerman (Industrial Engineering & Management), Prof. Naama Brenner ( Chemical Engineering), Assistant Prof. Omri Barak (Medicine), Prof. Yoram Gutfreund (Medicine), Assistant Prof. Dori Derdikman (Medicine), Prof. Hermann Wolosker (Medicine), Prof. Noam Ziv (Medicine), Prof. Alon Wolf (Mechanical Engineering), Prof. Miriam Zacksenhouse (Mechanical Engineering), Assistant Prof. Ronen Talmon (Electrical Engineering), Prof. Emeritus Moussa Youdim (Medicine), Prof. Eldad Yechiam (Industrial Engineering & Management), Prof. Ron Meir (Electrical Engineering), Prof. Shimon Marom (Medicine), Prof. Hillel Pratt (Medicine), Prof. Ido Erev (Industrial Engineering & Management), Assistant Prof. Itamar Kahn (Medicine), Assistant Prof. Shahar Kvatinsky (Electrical Engineering), Assistant Prof. Asya Rolls (Medicine), Prof. Yitzhak Schiller (Medicine) and other researchers.

Dendrites – the Brain’s Trees of Knowledge

An article by Prof. Jackie Schiller and doctoral student Maya Sandler sheds light on some basic questions related to the influence of the cerebral cortex on functional aspects such as emotions, thinking and psychiatric disorders. The article, published in the prestigious journal Neuron, examines brain plasticity mechanisms related to anticipation, feedback, learning and memory. The researchers anticipate that the findings may lead to the development of new approaches for treating learning and memory disorders and behavioral disorders such as autism.

The brain is composed of a complex network of interconnected neurons. The neuron, which is the basic processing unit of this network, is a complex processing unit that receives large number of input information from other neurons and processes them into an output that is transmitted to thousands of other neurons in the network.

The neuron is composed of several organelles: (1) the cell body and nucleus, which is responsible for the production of proteins and maintenance of the entire cell; (2) the axon, a branched offshoot that extends from the cell body and transmits information (output) to thousands of other neurons in the network; (3) the dendrites, the main input sites of the neuron, which enable the cell to receive and process information from the axons of thousands of neighboring cells; and (4) the synapses, the point of connection between the axon of one cell and the dendrite of another cell. All these channels of communication – axons, dendrites and synapses – are essential for brain function because they determine our motor, cognitive and other abilities.

Dendrites, which comprise most of the grey matter and occupy most of the volume of the cerebral cortex, have been the focus of Prof. Schiller’s research in recent years. They are tree-like branches, a few millimeters in length, which enable the cell to receive and process information from other neurons. In previous articles, Prof. Schiller demonstrated that dendrites are not simple structures but complex nonlinear processing  machines, and in this paper she presents a mechanism explaining a specific aspect of their unique flexibility. “During the learning process, this mechanism changes the dendrite and synapse. If we understand the precise nature of this mechanism we may be able to improve processes such as memory formation and potentially develop a novel class of treatment for neurodevelopmental and neurodegenerative diseases. Now we are focusing on understanding dendritic activity at the micro level but also at the network level in-vivo, with the hope of understanding the implications of these physiological mechanisms in health and disease.”