Public Release: 

Book from Waterloo professor teaches how to build a brain

University of Waterloo

WATERLOO, Ont., (Tuesday, June 25, 2013) - It sounds like science fiction, but a new book by a University of Waterloo professor is actually a step-by-step guide, teaching readers how they can build their own computer model of the human brain.

How To Build a Brain by Professor Chris Eliasmith details how and he and his team built Spaun, the world's largest functional brain model. The book gives hands-on tutorials that even newcomers to the field can undertake, quickly allowing them to construct a wide range of biologically realistic brain models.

"This book is aimed at anyone wishing to understand how large numbers of neurons form brain circuits that result in behavior, " said Professor Eliasmith, director of the Centre for Theoretical Neuroscience at Waterloo, Canada Research Chair in Theoretical Neuroscience, and professor in Waterloo's Department of Philosophy and Department of Systems Design Engineering. "The semantic, syntactical, control, learning, and memory models covered by the book and tutorials are the components that we used to create Spaun."

The Spaun project has received international acclaim ever since Eliasmith's findings were published in the journal Science in November. Spaun, which stands for Semantic Pointer Architecture Unified Network, consists of 2.5 million simulated neurons. The model is able to shift between diverse tasks -- from copying human handwriting to finding hidden patterns in a list of numbers - using a detailed neural architecture.

Professor Eliasmith is one of the field's top researchers, and his book gives readers deep and practical insight into the leading ideas on how brains work. His project was inspired by brain research but is among the first to address cognitive phenomena, helping researchers in neuroscience, psychology, and artificial intelligence build theoretical models that are able to help explain the brain's flexibility, robustness and ability to adapt.

"The brain is a fascinating and inspiring structure. We still have much to learn about how it really works, and what makes a mind," said Professor Eliasmith. "Spaun is the first model of its kind. By sharing how we built it, we hope that others join us in exploring the brain and help us unlock more of its secrets."

How to Build a Brain provides detailed hands-on tutorials instructing readers how to build a model of the brain using Nengo, the free, open source software written by Professor Eliasmith's lab.


How to Build a Brain is published by Oxford University Press.

To watch a video on Spaun, please visit

About the University of Waterloo

In just half a century, the University of Waterloo, located at the heart of Canada's technology hub, has become one of Canada's leading comprehensive universities with 35,000 full- and part-time students in undergraduate and graduate programs. Waterloo, as home to the world's largest post-secondary co-operative education program, embraces its connections to the world and encourages enterprising partnerships in learning, research and discovery. In the next decade, the university is committed to building a better future for Canada and the world by championing innovation and collaboration to create solutions relevant to the needs of today and tomorrow. For more information about Waterloo, please visit

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University of Waterloo

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