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$2.9M NSF Grant to Fund Research on Networks of Brain Neurons to Speed Up Computers

By Rebecca Copeland

A $2,949,109 award from the National Science Foundation will help University of Maryland researchers explore the “rules of life” of networks of neurons in the brain—a project that could one day lead to better computing tools.

The researchers will bring together recent technological advances in patterning, electrical recording, optical stimulation and genetic manipulation of neurons to study how to nurture the cultured cells while continuously observing and stimulating them at fine scale. They hope to uncover how the individual parts of a single neuron contribute to the overall learning and computation of the neural network.

Electrical and computer engineering Professor Pamela Abshire, an affiliate of the Institute for Systems Research (ISR) is the principal investigator; ISR-affiliated electrical and computer engineering Associate Professor Timothy Horiuchi and biology Professor Ricardo Araneda are the co-PIs for the project.

While similar attempts have been made in the past, earlier researchers were stymied by technical limitations. “They didn’t have the detailed ability to measure and stimulate specific locations within the neuronal network,” Abshire said. “Now with new tools, we can do this.”

While understanding how sophisticated networks of neurons work is a long-term goal, working with simple neurons and sparse networks must come first, she said. The goal is a proof-of-concept demonstration of a programmable computation by neurons in an engineered microenvironment.

The research aims to introduce a completely new set of engineering tools for interacting with living neurons and exploring what is computationally possible. Ultimately, new understanding about the neuronal rules of life will affect work in artificial intelligence, robotics and neural prosthetics.

Watch Abshire’s Distinguished Scholar-Teacher lecture, “What Can Cells Teach Us About Computing?,” the subject of the new NSF grant.

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