Say, while attending a conference in a foreign locale, you go to a jazz club with some colleagues. Your brain, as always, manages your affairs all evening. At the entrance to the club, your brain is already deciding which drink to order and planning the movements of your hand to lift that drink from the bar. At the same time, it is processing data from the general picture before you, scanning faces to spot a familiar one. Music sensed through your ears stimulates memory storage areas in your brain, which may respond by flooding the consciousness with remembered feelings. The same auditory center of your brain later identifies the sound of the local language. This time, your memory calls up a few words in that language. At the end of the evening, your brain recalls a map of the route to your hotel and guides your feet along that route. Finally, while your body sleeps, your brain continues to dream.
All of these demanding tasks, carried out in the course of an evening, take place in an organ that weighs only about 2.5 kilos (5.5 pounds) but uses up a fifth of the body’s oxygen supply. No existing computer can complete even a percentage of these tasks; certainly not all at once. That’s because the brain holds 100 billion nerve cells, and each is in contact with another 100-10,000 nerve cells, which communicate with another 100-10,000, and so on.
Scientists at the Weizmann Institute probe the secrets of the brain from nearly every conceivable angle, shedding new light on our least understood and most complex organ. Neurobiologists, computer scientists and others increasingly perceive the brain as a complex network of processing units that can simultaneously define goals, process signals from our sensing organs and interpret, store and recall loads of information while it continuously directs the body’s movements and keeps the other organs in check.
Prof. Tamar Flash, Head of the Computer Science and Applied Mathematics Department, and Prof. Dov Sagi of the Neurobiology Department are now working to set up a new center that aims to integrate research from different disciplines, both to better understand how the brain functions and to design more intelligent and capable artificial systems. One of the goals on the horizon: to develop ways to restore brain functions lost through injury or illness, an area in which computer science and biology have recently begun to join forces.
Prof. Tamar Flash’s research is supported by the Manfred D. Moross Laboratory for Vision Research and Robotics, and Prof. Gerald and Prof. Thelma Estrin. Prof. Flash is the incumbent of the Dr. Hymie Moross Professorial Chair.
Prof. Dov Sagi’s research is supported by the Nella and Leon Benoziyo Center for Neurosciences; the Nella and Leon Benoziyo Center for Neurological Diseases; the Carl and Micaela Einhorn-Dominic Brain Research Institute; the Murray H. and Meyer Grodetsky Center for Research of Higher Brain Functions; and the Dr. Pearl H. Levine Foundation for Research in the Neurosciences.
Prof. Sagi is the incumbent of the George Zlotowski Professorial Chair.