Swammerdam Institute for Life Sciences

UvA coordinates Cognition research in Human Brain Project

20 September 2016

The UvA has been awarded a coordinating role in the Human Brain Project, funded by the European Union designed to deepen our knowledge of the brain. UvA Professor Cyriel Pennartz is coordinating a subproject on Systems and Cognitive Neuroscience in which he and 15 other research groups within the EU try to uncover the neural mechanisms underlying cognitive processes, such as sleep, memory and consciousness.

The Human Brain Project (HBP) is an EU-funded Flagship Initiative designed to help advance neuroscience, medicine and computing. With funding amounting to a total of about 1 billion euros, this 10-year project is probably the biggest and most comprehensive research project in the history of brain research. Leading scientists from different disciplines and more than 100 universities and research centres across Europe are collaborating on this unprecedented endeavour. They gather experimental data, which inform theoretical models that in turn will be used to create simulations of the inner workings of the brain.

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Image: Human Brain Project-European Union

In October 2015, HBP challenged the research community to form a new subproject on Systems and Cognitive Neuroscience. Fifty-seven research groups all over Europe competed. Only four research groups were selected. Amongst them was ‘Episense' by UvA professor Cyriel Pennartz, head of the research group Cognitive and Systems Neuroscience at the Swammerdam Institute for Life Sciences (SILS). In the formation of a new Board of Directors, Prof. Pennartz was elected to lead the subproject on Systems and Cognitive Neuroscience, making him responsible for the coordination of 15 research groups in seven different European countries.

Uncovering brain mechanisms from memory

‘Episense’ investigates brain mechanisms of perception and memory. Episodic memory is the memory of our personal, conscious experiences set within space and time. It defines who we are. The brain’s ability to recall objects and experiences from multisensory information, such as vision, audition or touch sensation is a key to understanding human memory. For instance, when we hold a glass in our hand and close our eyes, we can vividly recall the taste and look of the wine that was in there before. Cyriel Pennartz and his team will conduct a coordinated series of experiments to identify the precise neuronal mechanisms behind episodic memory, and validate them by computational models, computer simulations and building robots with their own autobiographical memory.

Power of collaboration

Just like one neuron alone does not have the power to bring a change in the human brain, also Neuroscience requires team work. Human Brain Project believes in the power of collaboration. When top researchers from different disciplines join forces, something that is bigger than the sum of its parts can emerge. Thus, HBP aims to explain phenomena like perception, sleep, memory or consciousness by unravelling the underlying brain mechanisms. That is why Cyriel Pennartz’ group will be closely working together with researchers working on computer simulations, theoretical neuroscience, neuroinformatics, and robots. 

Published by  Faculty of Science