About


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 others.





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).

Motivation

The richness of high-level cognitive and adaptive properties of the brain is reflected in the complexity of its anatomy and (electro)physiology. At the cellular level, evolution privileged an analog distributed information storage and encoding system through the temporal and spatial integration of plastic and graded synaptic activity into all-or-none action potential output.
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.

Objectives

The project aims to develop a breakthrough and revolutionary technological approach to neural network modulation through the implantation of innovative microelectrodes in the cerebral cortex. The innovative technique has already been successfully applied in vitro and BRAINLEAP will improve it and transfer it in vivo. This will enable the simultaneous, long-term, and independent recording and stimulation of the electrical activity from individual mammalian neurons, with a quality that in practice matches the intracellular configuration. By allowing one to record (and stimulate) for very long times, synaptic- and action-potentials from individual neurons, in the context of specific sensorimotor integration tasks, the leap we propose might ultimately shift current paradigms and theories, from spike-centred computation to its underlying subthreshold synaptic potentials computation.

Results

The project generated an important body of new research and launched a new approach for the microfabrication of neural probes. These have bene tested and found superior to the existing devices, in terms of signal-to-noise ratio. More publications are in the pipeline from the consortium in the coming months.