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From the Center Director Mu-ming Poo

The Center for Excellence in Brain Science and Intelligence Technology (CEBSIT) is one of the first four centers for excellence founded by Chinese Academy of Sciences (CAS) in 2014,managed by the Institute of Neuroscience in Shanghai and Institute of Automation in Beijing. It is a cross-disciplinary, multi-institutional organization that aims to consolidate existing research strength of CAS laboratories via the formation of collaborative research teams. These teams will address major frontier questions in brain science as well as in intelligence technology that involves brain-inspired computing methods and devices.

The organization of CEBSIT is unique in several ways. First, it involves researchers from a large number of diverse research institutions within CAS as well as a few universities outside CAS. After joining CEBSIT, each researcher becomes a member of one or more research teams aiming at major frontier problems of common interests to the team members. Second, unlike a loose consortium of research laboratories, CEBSIT requires the researchers to devote their main research effort in performing the designated work as part of the team research. A three-party contractual agreement among CEBSIT, the researcher and his/her home institution stipulates that the home institution will fully support CEBSIT-related research activity and honor CEBSIT’s evaluation of the researcher’s scientific performance and contribution. Third, it is an organization designed to achieve effective coordination of team work in order to undertake China’s mid- to long-term major research projects in basic and applied sciences. Finally, it is also a platform to explore reform in institutional infrastructure that could minimize duplication and fragmentation of research programs across many CAS research units.

The research activities in CEBSIT are grouped into five areas. In the area of “neural circuit basis of cognitive functions”, we aim to study how sensory inputs are integrated and perceived by the brain and how motor actions and innate behaviors are initiated and modulated, how spontaneous brain activity modulate multi-sensory integration and sensorimotor transformation, neuronal how memory is stored and retrieval in the brain, and how neural circuits mediate adaptive behaviors and higher cognitive functions such as self-awareness, empathy, cooperative behavior, and language. In the area of “pathogenesis, diagnosis and intervention of brain disorders”, we are developing non-human primate models of brain diseases, using acute treatments and gene-editing techniques. We are studying the role of human-specific genes in regulating brain development,the pathogenic mechanisms underlying brain disorders, and genetic, molecular, and functional markers of major developmental, psychiatric, neurodegenerative diseases. In the area of “new technologies for brain research”, we are working on the identification of cell types in several brain areas using single-cell gene profiling methods, viral methods for tracing neural circuits, microelectrode array technologies for recording electrical and chemical signals, and new optical and magnetic resonance imaging techniques for observing brain activities. In the area of “brain-inspired computing models and information processing”, we are mapping the whole-brain connectome at both mesoscopic and macroscopic levels, using optical and brain imaging methods, and developing machine learning methods for efficient and generalizable information processing capability. Finally, in the area of “brain-inspired computing devices and systems”, we are developing neuron-like computing chips and devices, brain-machine interfaces, brain-like intelligent robots, and human-machine collaborative environment for learning and growth of intelligence.

The past several years are marked by a wave of global awareness of the importance of brain research, as reflected by several mega brain projects initiated in Europe, United States, and Japan, among others. There is a general consensus among Chinese neuroscientists that understanding the neural basis of cognitive processes should represent the central pillar of the China Brain Project, soon to be initiated as a major national science and technology project. In addition, China Brain Project will also address immediate societal needs, including brain-inspired intelligence technology, and effective approaches for prevention, diagnosis, and treatment of major brain diseases. The slow progress in the development of effective drugs for brain diseases over the past decades has led to the general view that early diagnosis and early intervention are likely to be the most effective approaches to reducing disease burden to the society. The existence of large patient populations in China offers a rather unique opportunity for the development of genetic, molecular, brain imaging and cognitive function markers for early diagnosis of major brain diseases. The available resource of macaque monkeys in China and rapid development of genetic manipulation technologies could facilitate the establishment of non-human primate models that are useful for studying pathogenic mechanisms and for developing effective pharmacological, physiological and physical intervention approaches. Effective fusion of brain science and intelligence technology will allow the rapid development of clinically oriented technologies, such as brain-machine interface devices, task- and circuit-specific neuromodulation methods, and web-based diagnostic, monitoring, and therapeutic tools.

Brain-like artificial intelligence have caught the imagination of people at all levels of scientific sophistication. “Brain-inspired AI” has become a synonym for the coming of the next generation of AI. Yet, brain science and intelligence technology are two separate disciplines that have flourished independently over the past decades without much interaction. There exists a gulf between the two disciplines that are marked by distinct training, languages, and cultures. Nevertheless, looking at the history of artificial neural networks, where the introduction of a few basic neuroscience concepts, such as connection weight modification, Hebbian learning rule, multi-layer structure and recurrent connections, had greatly empowered the machine learning methods, we can be certain that exciting new development will emerge when people from two disciplines are actually working together.

Indeed, there is little doubt that brain science and intelligence technology are two frontier areas of science that are bound to converge in the near future. The founding of CEBSIT provides us with an institutional mechanism that may facilitate such a convergence. With on-going improvement in its infrastructure, we expect that CEBSIT will continue to grow and prosper in coming years, as more and more researchers realize that interaction with scientists of very different backgrounds often yields unexpected insights and discoveries, and that solving major problems through team work is much more rewarding than making lesser achievements alone. Such realization will reflect directly a cultural change that is critical for achieving the goal of CAS’ institutional reform.