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Principles of Neural Design

ECTS credits:

Course parameters:

Language: English

Level of course: PhD and advanced MSc students

Time of year: Q2, 2022

No. of contact hours/hours in total incl. preparation, assignment(s) or the like: 35 hours of lectures + 20 hours of assignments, 40 hours of reading the textbook reference

Capacity limits: 20 participants

This course is organized by DANDRITE, who is part of the Nordic EMBL Partnership. Therefore, the course is reserved for PhD students enrolled with one of the four partnership nodes (DANDRITE, MIMS, FIMM and NCMM). Other students are encouraged to apply and will be put on a waiting list. After the registration deadline, available seats will be allocated to the waiting list.

The course fee is DKK 1.000 for all participants and will cover some of the direct costs related to demonstrations of various techniques and lab visits.


Objectives of the course:

This course is interested in the following question: How can the brain be far smarter than a supercomputer yet consume 100,000-fold less space and energy? Both brain and computer obey mathematical and physical laws and both deal with receiving, sending, processing, storing and retrieving information.

First, we will discuss why animals need brain. To provide the perspective, we discuss how brainless organisms such as bacteria and protozoa solve their problems in a constantly changing environments, what limitation they face which can be solved only by a brain.

Then we ask why larger brains have been favored by the evolution. We discuss the advantages that organisms with larger brains have over worms and flies.

For the rest of the lecture, we will discuss what constrains a large brain faces and how those constrains shape the neural design. We will argue that the (for now) unmatched computational power and efficiency of the brain lies in the principles of neural designs.

To understand the efficiency of the brain, first we will introduce students to the basic principles of information theory, so they can appreciate how the brain cleverly exploits these principles to compute most efficiently given limited in space and energy.

We will use the visual system as the example of a clever design for achieving the highest computational power within the limits of space and energy imposed by the laws of physics.

Finally, we will show that learning is a deep principle of neural design. As such, it is subject to the same constraints discussed previously. Regarding the encoding of new information and memories, we will discuss how synapses serve to conserve space, time, and energy and what are the molecular designs of short-term and long-term memories. We will conclude the section by pointing out to the downsides to design for learning, including addiction (in its broadest definition), depression, …   

The course is supplemented with an introduction to the techniques that are (mainly) exclusive to neuroscience. This includes optogenetics, in vitro and in vivo electrophysiology, calcium imaging from behaving animals, and animal behavior. Students will visit the labs performing these experiments and will see these techniques in action.

Learning outcomes and competences:

At the end of the course, the student should be able to:

  • Have a good grasp of the limitations and advantages of small and large nervous systems
  • Know the constrains that nervous systems face and how they evolved within these constrains
  • Perceive brain design and function as an information processing entity  
  • Describe the basic principles that the brain uses to achieve a superior computational power while keeping the energy consumption in check
  • Identify some fundamental principles shared by all systems and circuits within the brain
  • Analyze, review and constructively criticize papers in the relevant fields

Compulsory programme:

Active participation, assignments.

Course contents:

  • Lives of the brainless: A microbe’ s memory and its limitation; Protozoa: bigger and faster but still brainless.

    Worm with tiny brain: Finding warmth, food, and mates; Some design aspects of this tiny brain.

    How bigger brains are organized: Design constraints; Three principles of neural design.

    Sending out and receiving signals: Wireless and with wire; Processing and storage of information; Correcting errors.
  • Principles of information theory; What is information; Measuring neural information. Pricing neural information.
  • How protein molecules transmit and process information; Computation by the kinetics of chemical binding.

    What makes a protein circuit efficient? Energy efficiency of protein devices.

    Information processing by electrical circuits; Constraints on information processing by circuits of ion channels.

    Synapses and local computation; Dendrites expand a neuron’s information capacity.

    Glial cells in design of neurons.
  • How visual system optimize the capture, transmission and processing of visual information.

    How synaptic resources are invested from retina to cortex.

    How general are the circuits for cortical processing?
  • Biophysical constraint on efficient wiring: retina, cerebellum, cerebral cortex.

    Efficient wiring at large scales.

    “Law” of conservation of metabolic energy.
  • Principles for the design of learning; Cellular design for efficient information storage; How the design of memory couples to the design of learning.

    Designs to optimize choice and information storage.

    Downsides to the design for learning.


A grasp of the materials covered in the course Neurobiology 555152U006 should be sufficient. This is equivalent to a 10 ECTS in basic neurobiology at the level provided by basic textbooks such as Principles of Neurobiology by Liqun Luo; From Neuron to Brain by John G. Nicholls et al.; Neuroscience- Exploring the Brain by Mark Bear et al.; Principles of Neural Science by Eric Kandel et al.

Name of lecturer:
Sadegh Nabavi

Type of course/teaching methods:

Textbook, papers, and lab/experimental set up visit


The main textbook: Principles of Neural Design: Peter Sterling and Simon Laughlin

Complementary textbook: Principles of Neurobiology: Liqun Luo

In addition, we will use review articles, original research papers, and reliable web sites.

Course assessment:

Take-home assignment


Department of Molecular Biology and Genetics


24-29 May 2022


Aarhus University


Deadline for registration is 11 April 2022. Information regarding admission will be sent out no later than 15 April 2022.

Please register to Astrid Munk, asmu@dandrite.au.dk

Please note that participants will be charged a course fee of DKK 1.000, which will cover some of the direct costs related to demonstrations of various techniques and lab visits. All applicants are therefore asked to submit invoice details. If you are a PhD student, your participation in the course must be agreed upon with your principal supervisor.

If you have any questions, please contact Sadegh Nabavi, e-mail: snabavi@dandrite.au.dk  

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