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Synthetic Brains, Facebook and the New Revolution

Will we ever understand complex human experiences such as consciousness or emotions? Will there ever be a way to build synthetic brains or brain-like computers? The brain is a network of billions of interconnected cells and recent technological advances allow us to study the brain as an integrated network, much like Facebook. If you wanted to understand the Facebook network, you would not study each and every member. Rather, you would study how connections between members translate into interactions. You would observe communities that spontaneously emerge and topics that cascade across the network like viruses spreading on the internet. One might think that biomedical science would be on the forefront of utilizing such technologies. Unfortunately, biomedical science is mostly entrenched in methods and process thinking from the 1800s and 1900s. We are on the cusp of a transformation in scientific thinking that will allow us to begin to truly understand the functioning human brain.


  1. Will an understanding of how the brain works lead to new forms of artificial intelligence? Our most recent patent-pending technology will be presented. We have developed a brain model that utilizes the functional brain network from human MRI scans as the foundation for the model. The model has recently been shown to have a rudimentary ability to see. This model was briefly introduced in my TEDx talk that is included as the video in this application.
  2. Can brain networks be used to improve human health or improve brain function? Traditional brain imaging has not been a good tool for diagnosis, prognosis, or treatment of brain diseases such as schizophrenia or Alzheimer’s disease. Brain networks are a new way to evaluate brain imaging data, and we believe that evaluating how information moves on brain networks could be valuable for clinical purposes.
  3. Will we ever really understand processes like consciousness, perceptions, or emotions? High order brain processes are behaviors that emerge from the interactions of brain cells. No single cell performs these processes. By evaluating whole-brain networks and information transfer, we now are in a position to understand how such behaviors emerge in the brain.
  4. What is the difference between brain networks and current studies of the human brain? The vast majority of neuroscience is strongly reductionistic. Most neuroscientists believe that the better we understand brain cells, the better we can understand the functioning human brain. Network science represents the antithesis of this way of thinking. Many network scientists even believe that the more we know about individual neurons, the less we understand the brain as a functioning system.
  5. How are brain networks formed, and do they have any relationship to social networks? Networks that form without being engineered by humans are remarkably similar. Such networks are called “self-organized networks.” All of the tools that we use to evaluate the human brain network are also being used to understand social interactions. I will show examples of how the brain is, and is not, like networks such as Facebook.



Paul Laurienti, Professor, Wake Forest University School of Medicine

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