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An Artificial Neural Network, often just called a neural network, is a mathematical model inspired by biological neural networks. A neural network consists of an interconnected group of artificial neurons, and it processes information using a connectionist approach to computation. In most cases a neural network is an adaptive system that changes its structure during a learning phase. Neural networks are used to model complex relationships between inputs and outputs or to find patterns in data.
The inspiration for neural networks came from examination of central nervous systems. In an artificial neural network, simple artificial nodes, called "neurons", "neurodes", "processing elements" or "units", are connected together to form a network which mimics a biological neural network.
There is no single formal definition of what an artificial neural network is. Generally, it involves a network of simple processing elements that exhibit complex global behavior determined by the connections between the processing elements and element parameters. Artificial neural networks are used with algorithms designed to alter the strength of the connections in the network to produce a desired signal flow.
Neural networks are also similar to biological neural networks in that functions are performed collectively and in parallel by the units, rather than there being a clear delineation of subtasks to which various units are assigned. The term "neural network" usually refers to models employed in statistics, cognitive psychology and artificial intelligence. Neural network models which emulate the central nervous system are part of theoretical neuroscience and computational neuroscience.
In modern software implementations of artificial neural networks, the approach inspired by biology has been largely abandoned for a more practical approach based on statistics and signal processing. In some of these systems, neural networks or parts of neural networks (such as artificial neurons) are used as components in larger systems that combine both adaptive and non-adaptive elements. While the more general approach of such adaptive systems is more suitable for real-world problem solving, it has far less to do with the traditional artificial intelligence connectionist models. What they do have in common, however, is the principle of non-linear, distributed, parallel and local processing and adaptation. Historically, the use of neural networks models marked a paradigm shift in the late eighties from high-level (symbolic) artificial intelligence, characterized by expert systems with knowledge embodied in if-then rules, to low-level (sub-symbolic) machine learning, characterized by knowledge embodied in the parameters of a dynamical system.
The utility of artificial neural network models lies in the fact that they can be used to infer a function from observations. This is particularly useful in applications where the complexity of the data or task makes the design of such a function by hand impractical.
The tasks artificial neural networks are applied to tend to fall within the following broad categories:
Application areas include system identification and control (vehicle control, process control, natural resources management), quantum chemistry, game-playing and decision making (backgammon, chess, poker), pattern recognition (radar systems, face identification, object recognition and more), sequence recognition (gesture, speech, handwritten text recognition), medical diagnosis, financial applications (automated trading systems), data mining (or knowledge discovery in databases, "KDD"), visualization and e-mail spam filtering.
Artificial neural networks have also been used to diagnose several cancers. An ANN based hybrid lung cancer detection system named HLND improves the accuracy of diagnosis and the speed of lung cancer radiology. These networks have also been used to diagnose prostate cancer. The diagnoses can be used to make specific models taken from a large group of patients compared to information of one given patient. The models do not depend on assumptions about correlations of different variables. Colorectal cancer has also been predicted using the neural networks. Neural networks could predict the outcome for a patient with colorectal cancer with a lot more accuracy than the current clinical methods. After training, the networks could predict multiple patient outcomes from unrelated institutions.
Theoretical and computational neuroscience is the field concerned with the theoretical analysis and computational modeling of biological neural systems. Since neural systems are intimately related to cognitive processes and behavior, the field is closely related to cognitive and behavioral modeling.
The aim of the field is to create models of biological neural systems in order to understand how biological systems work. To gain this understanding, neuroscientists strive to make a link between observed biological processes (data), biologically plausible mechanisms for neural processing and learning (biological neural network models) and theory (statistical learning theory and information theory).
Many models are used in the field defined at different levels of abstraction and modeling different aspects of neural systems. They range from models of the short-term behavior of individual neurons, models of how the dynamics of neural circuitry arise from interactions between individual neurons and finally to models of how behavior can arise from abstract neural modules that represent complete subsystems. These include models of the long-term, and short-term plasticity, of neural systems and their relations to learning and memory from the individual neuron to the system level.
While initial research had been concerned mostly with the electrical characteristics of neurons, a particularly important part of the investigation in recent years has been the exploration of the role of neuromodulators such as dopamine, acetylcholine, and serotonin on behavior and learning.
Biophysical models, such as BCM theory, have been important in understanding mechanisms for synaptic plasticity, and have had applications in both computer science and neuroscience. Research is ongoing in understanding the computational algorithms used in the brain, with some recent biological evidence for radial basis networks and neural backpropagation as mechanisms for processing data.
Computational devices have been created in CMOS for both biophysical simulation and neuromorphic computing. More recent efforts show promise for creating nanodevices for very large scale principal components analyses and convolution. If successful, these efforts could usher in a new era of neural computing that is a step beyond digital computing, because it depends on learning rather than programming and because it is fundamentally analog rather than digital even though the first instantiations may in fact be with CMOS digital devices.
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