Using mathematics to decrypt the inner workings of the human brain
The NeuroMathComp project team led by Olivier Faugeras is using complex mathematical tools to better understand how the brain works. Paul Bressloff, mathematics professor at the University of Utah and international chair at Inria, is also participating in the project.
What are the main areas of research of the NeuroMathComp project?
Paul Bressloff : We are attempting to study the effects of noise and random errors* on brain neurons and cells. Our approach is based on the use of advanced mathematical techniques such as stochastic analysis and modeling of random phenomena
Olivier Faugeras : Most people are unaware of this, but these phenomena occur in the human brain and are sources of uncertainty potentially leading to small errors in the brain's decision-making process. We are trying to understand how the brain manages to minimise this potential impact.
How did this collaboration begin?
P.B. : When I was teaching at Oxford, I worked for several months with a student called Mathieu Galtier, whose thesis supervisor happened to be Olivier Faugeras
O.F. : The collaboration with this student proved to be very productive, so we decided to continue working together. As soon as I heard of the creation of international chairs at INRIA, I contacted Paul and we drafted our request.
What does this international chair position entail and what are you currently working on?
P.B. : I joined the NeuroMathComp project team on the 1st of June, and we already have an article about to be published. I have also presented four conferences, and two more are planned. These conferences are intended to present my work to the project team and INRIA students. The international chair position requires that I devote a total of 12 months to INRIA over the next five years. Then again, it’s impossible to plan everything in advance
O.F. : Theoretically, Paul will be spending two months in France each summer. Next year, he will be accompanied by one of his most promising students.
P.B. : Indeed, the University of Utah encourages student exchanges between laboratories during the summer. I have also chosen the summer season because, as a professor in the United States, I am paid for nine months, and during the summer I am entirely free.
O.F. : We are also preparing a conference on mathematics and neurosciences to be held in 2015 at Sophia Antipolis. This is a newly emerging research area and we need to promote it. We are also looking to establish an associate team in order to strengthen our ties and increase the number of student exchanges, the goal being to expose students to different methods.
How do your research methods differ ?
P.B. : I come from a background where mathematics is mainly applied to physics, so I use techniques that Olivier doesn’t use. He uses the French approach, which is very rigorous. The Anglo-Saxon approach is less rigorous but more quickly produces working assumptions that need to be subsequently made more rigorous and tested experimentally
O.F. : Such synergy does not exist in France, where the use of a single approach slows down research as compared to English-speaking countries. Paul's presence is therefore extremely useful, in addition to pleasant.
* Random dysfunctions of neural mechanisms.