How ANNs Help Understand the Human Brain, Good News for Brain-Related Ailments


TL;DR Breakdown

  • Artificial neural networks (ANNs) are providing new insights into understanding the human brain, thanks to AI and machine learning advancements.
  • Research shows ANNs and biological brains exhibit remarkable parallels in processing tasks, enhancing the prospects of brain-computer interfaces.
  • AI’s continued evolution promises a promising future for neuroscience, unveiling the enigma of the human mind and exploring potential treatments for brain-related ailments.

In the pursuit of studying the intricacies of the human brain, researchers are finding unconventional help from artificial intelligence. Pioneering breakthroughs in artificial intelligence, particularly machine learning, have significantly fueled the development of sophisticated computational models like artificial neural networks (ANNs). Such ANNs, deemed ‘artificial brains’, are now yielding intriguing insights that might help us better understand our own biological brains.

Machine learning and artificial neural networks: Pioneering the AI revolution

Over the past decade, AI’s impressive advancements are largely attributed to machine learning, where computers autonomously learn complex tasks by processing massive volumes of data, bypassing the need for direct human programming. This approach has triggered notable leaps in fields such as computer vision, language translation, and conversational skills of chatbots, with models like OpenAI’s GPT-4 leading the way.

Artificial neural networks, the central characters in this innovative saga, are essentially software models that emulate the human brain’s neural networks, albeit in a simplified form. These artificial networks have layers of artificial neurons that mimic their biological counterparts, either being active or inactive. The activity in lower layers influences how neurons in the higher layers operate.

AI and biology: Unraveling neural parallels

In a landmark study in 2014, neuroscientist Daniel Yamins and his team at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) discovered startling parallels between the functioning of an ANN and a biological brain. The researchers trained an ANN to identify objects from photos and compared its inner operations with those of macaque monkeys given the same task. 

Their study established an intriguing similarity between how the monkeys and the ANN represented images. Nancy Kanwisher, a professor at MIT, noted that the ANN was not designed to fit the brain, but its incredible fit presented exciting possibilities for neuroscience research.

This landmark study sparked a series of explorations comparing high-performing ANNs with natural brains, across tasks including speech recognition, language processing, and more. A 2021 paper discovered that OpenAI’s GPT-2, one of the most advanced ANNs, closely matched human brain activity while processing written language. 

Another milestone research in 2022 predicted the existence of a group of neurons in the human brain specialized for identifying food, based on their observation in an image-trained ANN. This prediction was confirmed a year later, further reinforcing the growing symbiosis between AI and neuroscience.

University College London neuroscientists Nicholas Sexton and Bradley Love took this exploration a step further. In a 2022 study, they fed human brain activity into an ANN, an attempt to let the ANN ‘see’ through human eyes. Remarkably, the ANN could interpret data from any hierarchical layer of the human visual system, suggesting a significant cognitive parallel between biological and silicon brains.

While artificial brains don’t perfectly mimic human brains, their similarities offer a powerful model for understanding our own minds. Dr Love reflected, “When I was in graduate school, I would dream about something like this existing. I thought it would be hundreds of years until we had something that works this well.”

Potential applications for brain-computer interfaces

Today, ANN’s are not only helping neuroscience advance but also creating potential applications for brain-computer interfaces. These devices aim to connect biological brains directly to machines, potentially offering new treatments for blindness caused by brain damage. Several research groups in the U.S. and Europe are now testing these innovative ideas on macaques.

In essence, the interplay of biology and silicon continues to generate exciting results. A recent study from the University of Texas at Austin demonstrated an ANN’s capability to produce a summary of a story, film, or sentence just from the brain activity data of the participant. Undoubtedly, the future of neuroscience looks promising as artificial intelligence continues to shed light on the mysteries of the human mind.

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John Palmer

John Palmer is an enthusiastic crypto writer with an interest in Bitcoin, Blockchain, and technical analysis. With a focus on daily market analysis, his research helps traders and investors alike. His particular interest in digital wallets and blockchain aids his audience.

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