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Frontal view of the hippocampus and its main fiber tracts frontal (A). Source: SPECS lab.

Researchers at IBEC uncover the neural mechanism of autonomous learning

An international team -led by Synthetic Perceptive, Emotive and Cognitive Systems Lab (SPECS) at the Institute for Bioengineering of Catalonia (IBEC)– reveals how the brain improves through self-supervised learning combining an analysis of over three decades of research in neuroscience and artificial intelligence. The work, published in Trends in Cognitive Sciences, is relevant for improving memory deficits in humans and for building new and advanced forms of artificial memory systems. 

Thanks to the so-called deep learning, a subset of artificial intelligence (AI) algorithms inspired by the brain, machines can match human performance in perception and language recognition and even outperform humans in certain tasks. But do these synthetic biologically inspired systems learn in the same way that we do?

According to a new article by first author Dr. Diogo Santos–Pata from the SPECS Lab at IBEC, led by ICREA Professor Paul Verschure, in collaboration with Prof. Ivan Soltesz at Stanford University, the mechanism of autonomous learning underlying these AI systems reflects nature more closely than previously thought. With their hypothesis and model, these scientists offer new insights into how we learn and store memories.

The brain is considered an autonomous learning system. In other words, it can detect patterns and acquire new knowledge without external guidance. Until recently, this was not the case for AI — any data being fed to machine learning systems needed to be tagged first. This so-called symbol grounding problem hampers progress in AI for the last decades.

Image: owned by SPECS-lab (Shutterstock).

Paul Verschure and colleagues have systematically addressed the ability of cognitive systems to autonomously acquire knowledge, or so-called epistemic autonomy. Some experts presumed that no such mechanism existed in biological neural networks. However, based on a combination of considerations from the current practice of AI, computational neuroscience, and an analysis of the hippocampal physiology, with this new article the authors show that self-supervision and error backpropagation co-exists in the brain, and with a very specific area of the brain involved: the hippocampus.

“We resolved two riddles which appeared unrelated but are intertwined: that epistemic autonomy of the brain is based on its ability to set self-generated learning objectives and that inhibitory signals are propagated through the brain to improve learning”, states Paul Verschure.

The circuitry and anatomy of learning

The hippocampus, a structure in the vertebrate brain, has long been understood to play a crucial role in memory and learning. But key questions have remained unanswered: how does it know what, and when, to learn? And what is the mechanism driving this?

Thanks to the close interaction with the neurophysiologist Ivan Soltesz and his team at Stanford Universityresearchers show that the hippocampus contains a network of neurons that control neuronal signals and information in a similar manner to the operations of artificial neural networks underlying the current AI revolution. Being able to compare new signals with the memory they trigger enables the hippocampus to learn about changes in our environment; a prediction Paul Verschure had made in 1993 based on neural embodied network models. 

“Our main finding was putting in perspective not only the circuitry and the anatomy of the hippocampal complex but also the types of neurons that drive learning and allow the hippocampus to be fully autonomous in deciding what and when to learn. It’s especially interesting because self-supervised machine learning-driven by error backpropagation is currently gaining a lot of traction and attention in the world of artificial intelligence and this is the first study to provide a comprehensive biological explanation for this mechanism”, explains Santos-Pata.

» Reference article: Diogo Santos-Pata, Adrián F. Amil, Ivan Georgiev Raikov, César Rennó-Costa, Anna Mura, Ivan Soltesz, Paul F.M.J. Verschure. “Epistemic Autonomy: Self-supervised Learning in the Mammalian Hippocampus”. Trends in Cognitive Sciences, 2021. DOI:

» For further information: IBEC website  [+]