Power saving in the brain

A computer model of neural networks shows that the brain can increase its energy efficiency by storing memories initially in a transient form.

Image credit: Public domain (CC0)

The brain expends a lot of energy. While the organ accounts for only about 2% of a person’s bodyweight, it is responsible for about 20% of our energy use at rest. Neurons use some of this energy to communicate with each other and to process information, but much of the energy is likely used to support learning. A study in fruit flies showed that insects that learned to associate two stimuli and then had their food supply cut off, died 20% earlier than untrained flies. This is thought to be because learning used up the insects’ energy reserves.

If learning a single association requires so much energy, how does the brain manage to store vast amounts of data? Li and van Rossum offer an explanation based on a computer model of neural networks. The advantage of using such a model is that it is possible to control and measure conditions more precisely than in the living brain.

Analysing the model confirmed that learning many new associations requires large amounts of energy. This is particularly true if the memories must be stored with a high degree of accuracy, and if the neural network contains many stored memories already. The reason that learning consumes so much energy is that forming long-term memories requires neurons to produce new proteins. Using the computer model, Li and van Rossum show that neural networks can overcome this limitation by storing memories initially in a transient form that does not require protein synthesis. Doing so reduces energy requirements by as much as 10-fold.

Studies in living brains have shown that transient memories of this type do in fact exist. The current results hence offer a hypothesis as to how the brain can learn in a more energy efficient way. Energy consumption is thought to have placed constraints on brain evolution. It is also often a bottleneck in computers. By revealing how the brain encodes memories energy efficiently, the current findings could thus also inspire new engineering solutions.