BRAINLEAP has been carried out by an ambitious multidisciplinary European consortium
composed of five universities. The different teams were constituted by neurobiologists, engineers, physicists, chemists, neurophysiologists, and electrophysiologists, ultimately interested in
fundamentally understanding how the brain works. This has been considered by enabling the study on how individual neurons behave and communicate, specifically developing a novel breakthrough technology. Listening to the concerted activities of neurons and networks of neurons is considered in fact imperative for addressing brain (dys)functions, and it is even more important to access large number of neurons simultaneously with high temporal precision and with less disturbance as possible.
Like in the universe, planets form solar systems, many solar systems
form galaxies, and many galaxies form mass assemblies, thousands of
neurons form neuronal networks, and millions of neuronal networks
assemble together to form our brain, which is altogether composed of
billions of cells.
For some aspects, the way neuronal networks operate
is not too far from what happens in a network of computers, like the
Internet: when a computer wants to send data packet to another one,
coaxial cables allow them to transmit signals over distance, and routers
allow distinct computers to connect and exchange data between each
There are other similarities and analogies with computers that might be used to help our understanding and intuition: neurons emits very tiny electrical currents
to communicate to each other. Understanding how the brain computes, and
how cognition and behavior correlate with cellular electrical
activation, then ultimately requires to simultaneously listen to the
concerted activity of hundreds of neurons simultaneously. The same need
is apparent for connecting artificial devices to the brain, as in brain
pacemakers and neuroprostheses to repair damaged brains.
Unfortunately, current state-of-the-art technologies allows one to measure electrical activity from one neuron at the time, by inserting very fine glass needle electrodes. This technique is very important for basic science, and it is very accurate, but it has also many disadvantages.
In 2013, the European Commission funded with more than 2.5 million euros the Brainleap consortium to pursue advanced research activities on a breakthrough, revolutionary technological approach to measure the electrical activity from many neurons at the same time. This technique has been pioneered by Dr. M. Spira, and it is based on Neuro-Chips, employing the same micro-technology of modern computer chips.
On the short-term perspectives, the emphasis is to understand at the fundamental level how neurons and network of neurons organize their "code" and exchange information. The long-term visions are focused on new revolutionary devices to be interfaced to the brain, to repair its damaged sensory functions (like in blindness), to restore motor control (like in paralyzed patients), and to treat neurodegenerative diseases (like Parkinson's).
Since this output is sparse in the largest portion of the mammalian brain, the neocortex, subthreshold synaptic and membrane electrical activities are dominant and therefore disclose the details of single-neuron computations, neuronal identity and role, information processing and synaptic read-out, as well as history-dependent dynamics of excitability and synaptic efficacy.
The long-term experimental access to subthreshold activity of many neurons simultaneously, during behaviour and cognition, is therefore a requirement for the ultimate understanding of brain function, its reverse engineering, as well as an unexplored alternative to neuroprosthetics.