The RAMP project, funded by the EU with more than EUR 2 million between November 2013 and April 2017, sets the way for new approaches on brain therapy and rehabilitation in neurological disorders. It is paving the ground for the construction of effective 'neuromorphic neuroprosthetics' – prostheses for degenerated parts of the brain.
RAMP aims to build a physical neural network that bridges natural and artificial neurons. This new biohybrid architecture seeks to enhance the adaptation properties of the artificial neurons through the use of memristive nanoelectronic devices. Those electrical components can remember, regulate and retain data on the flow of electric charge that went through them.
The research of human brain in interaction with artificial networks may play a key role on the development of new computing architectures, thus benefitting high performance computing research.
In this short interview, project coordinator Stefano Vassanelli provides an insight on the importance of EU funding for researchers who aim to bring their innovations to European citizens.
Stefano, what is the main added value of EU funding to your project?
"The RAMP project would have been impossible without EU funding. The FET Proactive call 'Evolving Living Technologies' prompted us to re-think our work under a new light, leading us to take advantage from separate recent advances in the fields of memristive devices and neural interfaces to create a highly innovative link between brain networks and neuromorphic nanoelectronics. Furthermore, it provided us with adequate funds that could be distributed across a highly heterogeneous and interdisciplinary consortium of partners with the necessary competences and expertise. It is important to note that the cooperation philosophy behind this funding scheme was essential compared to 'one-PI-only' funding schemes, as it allowed us to establish a very fruitful cooperation across different laboratories in Europe, each one with advanced and specific competencies in its own field that are impossible to find in one single institution."
In projects like RAMP continuity is a key element. How important was the sustained EU funding for your research over several projects?
"It was vital. I started my laboratory at the University of Padova in 2000 thanks to a European project and maintained it over the years thanks to subsequent projects and European funds. Without them my laboratory and my research career would not exist. I'd like to emphasise that for many scientists like me, engaged in interdisciplinary technology-based research, it would be impossible without continuous European funding opportunities to carry on our research actives at an international level."
Brain research is paramount in an ageing society. Specifically, how can European citizens benefit from the outcome/results of your project?
"We have set the basis of a radically new way of approaching brain therapy and rehabilitation in neurological disorders. When thinking e.g. to orthopaedic prostheses it is clear that now technology provides replacements of damaged or degenerated bones that are very similar to originals in terms of structure and functional properties, and they work effectively to restore function in patients and aged people. But what about the brain? Ideally we should replace damaged or degenerated neurons and circuits with artificial counterparts that are capable to replace or at least assist them in rehabilitation trials. We have made a very important step in this direction to 'neuromorphic neuroprosthetics' by providing a new technology where natural and artificial electronic neurons are linked for the first time within a biohybrid architecture obeying brain-inspired plasticity rules.
We also strongly believe that our work will be fundamental to help developing innovative and very advanced neuromorphic computing strategies, as information processing mechanisms of brain neuronal networks could be directly investigated through direct and mutual interaction with artificial networks in a sort of 'reverse engineering approach'."