Olaf Sporns completed his undergraduate studies in biochemistry at Eberhard-Karls-Universität in Tübingen, Germany where he was also a research assistant at the Max Planck Institute for Developmental Biology. He was a research assistant at the Shanghai Institute of Cell Biology at the Chinese Academy of Sciences before completing his Ph.D. in Neuroscience at Rockefeller University in New York in 1990. Sporns completed postdoctoral positions at The Neurosciences Institute in New York and The Neurosciences Institute in La Jolla, California and was a guest investigator at The Scripps Research Institute Department of Neurobiology before joining the IU department of psychology in 2000 as assistant professor. He became associate professor in 2004, professor in 2007, and was named Provost Professor in 2011. Since 2000 he has been a core faculty member in the Cognitive Sciences program and holds affiliated titles in the School of Informatics and Computing and the Biocomplexity Institute. He has served as external research professor at the Krasnow Institute for Advanced Study at George Mason University since 2000 and as a member of the Faculty of the Parmenides Foundation in Munich, Germany since 2004.
Sporns is "one of the most important theorists in cognitive neuroscience whose theoretical advances made the Human Connectome Project possible." His early work in artificial intelligence and robotics is widely acknowledged as foundational and his theoretical papers underlie some of the most advanced work today in epigenetic robotics and artificial life. Dr. Sporns was a founding member of the first International Conference on Development and Learning that brings robotocists, artificial life researchers, neuroscientists, and human developmentalists together. In 2001, He was co-author of a highly influential paper in Science, Autonomous mental development by robots and animals, which is "widely viewed as the founding call for the fields of epigenetic robotics." His landmark paper Theoretical Neuroanatomy, "changed the field of neuroscience," and represented some of the very first efforts to use graph theory to describe cortical network topology and to relate network topology to dynamics. His book on Networks of the Brain is a "landmark synthesis of our knowledge of this field." The transformative contribution of his theoretical advances is the discovery of how to systematically and progressively map the wiring diagram and his computational analyses are the foundation for understanding how the entire brain works as a system. NIH adopted Dr. Sporns' formulation of the computational problem of how to understand the complexity of the human brain, and his proposed agenda for solving that problem, in the Connectome Project. In sum, Dr. Sporns "is a computational neuroscientist whose theoretical advances played foundational roles in robotics and artificial life and who has defined the agenda for the next decade in neuroscience."
Sporns has received fellowships from the Studienstiftung des Deutschen Volkes, Rockefeller University, the Keck Foundation, and Guggenheim. Professor Sporns has received the Outstanding Junior Faculty Award, the Trustees Teaching Award, and the Distinguished Faculty Award from the College of Arts and Sciences. Professor Sporns has published five books and authored over 150 articles which are all widely cited and are described as graphically beautiful and technically innovative. He has lectured in Germany, Israel, Switzerland, the Netherlands, England, Canada, Italy, Japan, Australia, Brazil, China, and Spain. His research has been funded by the W.M. Keck Foundation, U.S. Department of Defense, National Institutes of Health, James S. McDonnell Foundation, U.S. Air Force Office of Scientific Research, and the National Science Foundation.
Sporns received the IU Bicentennial Medal in September 2020 in recognition of his distinguished contributions to Indiana University.