New Brain Learning Mechanism Calls for Revision of Long-Held Neuroscience Hypothesis

Summary: Experimental observations conclude learning is mainly performed by neural dendrite trees as opposed to modifying solely through the strength of the synapses, as previously believed.

Source: Bar-Ilan University

The brain is a complex network containing billions of neurons. Each of these neurons communicates simultaneously with thousands of others via their synapses (links), and collects incoming signals through several extremely long, branched “arms,” called dendritic trees.

For the last 70 years a core hypothesis of neuroscience has been that brain learning occurs by modifying the strength of the synapses, following the relative firing activity of their connecting neurons.

This hypothesis has been the basis for machine and deep learning algorithms which increasingly affect almost all aspects of our lives. But after seven decades, this long-lasting hypothesis has now been called into question.

In an article published today in Scientific Reports, researchers from Bar-Ilan University in Israel reveal that the brain learns completely differently than has been assumed since the 20th century.

The new experimental observations suggest that learning is mainly performed in neuronal dendritic trees, where the trunk and branches of the tree modify their strength, as opposed to modifying solely the strength of the synapses (dendritic leaves), as was previously thought.

These observations also indicate that the neuron is actually a much more complex, dynamic and computational element than a binary element that can fire or not.

Just one single neuron can realize deep learning algorithms, which previously required an artificial complex network consisting of thousands of connected neurons and synapses.

“We’ve shown that efficient learning on dendritic trees of a single neuron can artificially achieve success rates approaching unity for handwritten digit recognition. This finding paves the way for an efficient biologically inspired new type of AI hardware and algorithms,” said Prof. Ido Kanter, of Bar-Ilan’s Department of Physics and Gonda (Goldschmied) Multidisciplinary Brain Research Center, who led the research.

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A paradigm shift in brain research: The new neuron and the new type of learning. Credit: Prof. Ido Kanter, Bar-Ilan University

“This simplified learning mechanism represents a step towards a plausible biological realization of backpropagation algorithms, which are currently the central technique in AI,” added Shiri Hodassman, a Ph.D. student and one of the key contributors to this work.

The efficient learning on dendritic trees is based on Kanter and his research team’s experimental evidence for sub-dendritic adaptation using neuronal cultures, together with other anisotropic properties of neurons, like different spike waveforms, refractory periods and maximal transmission rates.

The brain’s clock is a billion times slower than existing parallel GPUs, but with comparable success rates in many perceptual tasks.

The new demonstration of efficient learning on dendritic trees calls for new approaches in brain research, as well as for the generation of counterpart hardware aiming to implement advanced AI algorithms. If one can implement slow brain dynamics on ultrafast computers, the sky is the limit.

About this neuroscience and learning research news

Author: Press Office
Source: Bar-Ilan University
Contact: Press Office – Bar-Ilan University
Image: The image is credited to Bar-Ilan University

Original Research: Open access.
Efficient dendritic learning as an alternative to synaptic plasticity hypothesis” by Shiri Hodassman et al. Scientific Reports


Efficient dendritic learning as an alternative to synaptic plasticity hypothesis

Synaptic plasticity is a long-lasting core hypothesis of brain learning that suggests local adaptation between two connecting neurons and forms the foundation of machine learning.

The main complexity of synaptic plasticity is that synapses and dendrites connect neurons in series and existing experiments cannot pinpoint the significant imprinted adaptation location.

We showed efficient backpropagation and Hebbian learning on dendritic trees, inspired by experimental-based evidence, for sub-dendritic adaptation and its nonlinear amplification.

It has proven to achieve success rates approaching unity for handwritten digits recognition, indicating realization of deep learning even by a single dendrite or neuron.

Additionally, dendritic amplification practically generates an exponential number of input crosses, higher-order interactions, with the number of inputs, which enhance success rates.

However, direct implementation of a large number of the cross weights and their exhaustive manipulation independently is beyond existing and anticipated computational power.

Hence, a new type of nonlinear adaptive dendritic hardware for imitating dendritic learning and estimating the computational capability of the brain must be built.

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  1. It’s becoming clear that with all the brain and consciousness theories out there, the proof will be in the pudding. By this I mean, can any particular theory be used to create a human adult level conscious machine. My bet is on the late Gerald Edelman’s Extended Theory of Neuronal Group Selection. The lead group in robotics based on this theory is the Neurorobotics Lab at UC at Irvine. Dr. Edelman distinguished between primary consciousness, which came first in evolution, and that humans share with other conscious animals, and higher order consciousness, which came to only humans with the acquisition of language. A machine with primary consciousness will probably have to come first.

    The thing I find special about the TNGS is the Darwin series of automata created at the Neurosciences Institute by Dr. Edelman and his colleagues in the 1990’s and 2000’s. These machines perform in the real world, not in a restricted simulated world, and display convincing physical behavior indicative of higher psychological functions necessary for consciousness, such as perceptual categorization, memory, and learning. They are based on realistic models of the parts of the biological brain that the theory claims subserve these functions. The extended TNGS allows for the emergence of consciousness based only on further evolutionary development of the brain areas responsible for these functions, in a parsimonious way. No other research I’ve encountered is anywhere near as convincing.

    I post because on almost every video and article about the brain and consciousness that I encounter, the attitude seems to be that we still know next to nothing about how the brain and consciousness work; that there’s lots of data but no unifying theory. I believe the extended TNGS is that theory. My motivation is to keep that theory in front of the public. And obviously, I consider it the route to a truly conscious machine, primary and higher-order.

    My advice to people who want to create a conscious machine is to seriously ground themselves in the extended TNGS and the Darwin automata first, and proceed from there, by applying to Jeff Krichmar’s lab at UC Irvine, possibly. Dr. Edelman’s roadmap to a conscious machine is at

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