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Computational Neuroscience

(Stanford University - Jaclyn Chen)


- The Human Brain

The human brain is a biological organ, weighing about three pounds (or 1.4 kg), that determines our behaviors, thoughts, emotions and consciousness. Although comprising only 2% of the total body weight, the brain consumes about 20% of the oxygen entering the body. With the expensive energy demand, the brain enables us to perceive and act upon the external world, as well as reflect on our internal thoughts and feelings. The brain is actually never at ‘rest’. Brain activities continue around the clock, ranging from functions enabling human–environment interactions to housekeeping during sleep, including processes such as synaptic homeostasis and memory formation. Whereas one could argue that sciences in the last century were dominated by physics and molecular biology, in the current century one of our major challenges is to elucidate how the brain works. A full understanding of brain functions and malfunctions is likely the most demanding task we will ever have.


- Computational Neuroscience: A Frontier of the 21st Century 

Computational neuroscience (also known as theoretical neuroscience or mathematical neuroscience) is a branch of neuroscience which employs mathematical models, theoretical analysis and abstractions of the brain to understand the principles that govern the development, structure, physiology and cognitive abilities of the nervous system. 

In theory, computational neuroscience would be a sub-field of theoretical neuroscience which employs computational simulations to validate and solve the mathematical models. However, since the biologically plausible mathematical models formulated in neuroscience are in most cases too complex to be solved analytically, the two terms are essentially synonyms and are used interchangeably.[5] The term mathematical neuroscience is also used sometimes, to stress the quantitative nature of the field. 

Computational neuroscience focuses on the description of biologically plausible neurons (and neural systems) and their physiology and dynamics, and it is therefore not directly concerned with biologically unrealistic models used in connectionism, control theory, cybernetics, quantitative psychology, machine learning, artificial neural networks, artificial intelligence and computational learning theory; although mutual inspiration exists and sometimes there is no strict limit between fields, with model abstraction in computational neuroscience depending on research scope and the granularity at which biological entities are analyzed. 

Models in theoretical neuroscience are aimed at capturing the essential features of the biological system at multiple spatial-temporal scales, from membrane currents, and chemical coupling via network oscillations, columnar and topographic architecture, nuclei, all the way up to psychological faculties like memory, learning and behavior. These computational models frame hypotheses that can be directly tested by biological or psychological experiments.


- Artificial Intelligence (AI) and Neuroscience

AI and neuroscience have closely interacted and inspired each other since the beginning of AI. With the fast developments in deep learning over the last decade, AI has had a substantial impact on many applications in science and society. 

Advances in efficient computing hardware, which are in turn inspired by insights from neuroscience will be instrumental in moving AI beyond narrow applications. 

[More to come ...]

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