In one of the biggest funding exercises ever, European Commission has selected Prof. Henry Markram‘s (pictured above) dream project – The Human Brain Simulation Project for a mammoth grant of € 1 billion over a period of ten years.
The Human Brain Simulation Project or the Blue Brain project has been a center of quite a controversy ever since it started in 2005 at the École Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne (Switzerland). It aims to create a synthetic brain by reverse engineering a human brain down to its molecular details. It uses the famed Blue GENE supercomputer and uses Michael Hine’s NEURON software to recreate neural connections not just by using Artificial Neural Networks but by a closer approximate model of neurons.
What is it all about?
Neuroscientists have been trying to understand the inner workings of our human brain for some centuries now. First came, the detailed anatomical drawings by Rufus of Ephesus, Galen and Leonardo da Vinci. Then English physician Thomas Willis published his Anatomy of the Brain which assimilated all its inner structures. The goal of understanding what brain is and how it does work started from these anatomical drawings and has continued on to constructing detailed mathematical models of how each of the cells within it work. Of course, i am talking about the famous Hodgkin-Huxley model which for the first time describes how action potentials in neurons are initiated and propagated.
The quest for understanding how billions of neurons come together in a complex network with millions of feedback loops and yet function so harmoniously without any hint of chaos is considered to be one of the Holy Grails of Science. In this picture comes Prof Markram’s Human Brain Simulation project. With advanced supercomputer at one side, and brilliant electrophysiologists at the other the aim has been to model not just the neural circuits involved in, say, the sense of smell, but to model everything,
“from the genetic level, the molecular level, the neurons and synapses, how microcircuits are formed, macrocircuits, mesocircuits, brain areas — until we get to understand how to link these levels, all the way up to behaviour and cognition”
Progress until now?
Obviously to even start off this mammoth task, one has to first demonstrate this so-called unified approach on a smaller scale. And that was indeed what he started off with. From 1995 to 2006 he collected data on the simulation of a rat neocortical column, which can be considered the smallest functional unit of the neocortex (the part of the brain thought to be responsible for higher functions such as conscious thought). Such a column is about 2 mm tall, has a diameter of 0.5 mm and contains about 60,000 neurons in humans; rat neocortical columns are very similar in structure but contain only 10,000 neurons (and 108 synapses). By December 2006, Markram was able to map all the types of neurons and their connections in that column.
By 2008, the researchers had linked about 10,000 such models into a simulation of a tube-shaped piece of cortex known as a cortical column. Now, using a more advanced version of Blue Gene, they have simulated 100 interconnected columns.This has indeed proven that such unifying models can, as promised, serve as repositories for data on cortical structure and function.
All of this has only been possible due to the large-scale advances in supercomputing technology and data storage facilities. The computer power required to run such a grand unified theory of the brain would be roughly an exaflop, or 1018 operations per second, which were quite hopeless in the 1990’s when Markram started off the project. But as available computer power doubles roughly every 18 months, so exascale computers might be available by the 2020’s.
There has been some criticisms to this project, and that has to do with the media hype generated by Markram. His critics argue that he has been making his case through talks, media interviews, well-placed ads, and through the traditional means of publishing articles, reviews etc. The detractors also argue that the Markram’s bottom-up approach might yield such a model which could be so detailed that it is no easier to understand than the real brain. Also, the progress till now has not been daunting either, as the rat neocortex has no inputs from sensory organs or outputs to other parts of the brain, and produces almost no interesting behaviour.
But despite all the criticism, one hopes that this gargantuan project with its lofty aim would yield interesting results, even if not a complete replica of human brain but at least a shadow simulacrum would be enough. For all the critics, who are too afraid of Markram’s bold new ideas I would reiterate James Russell Lowell:
“Creativity is not the finding of a thing, but the making something out of it after it is found.”
- Turing at 100: Legacy of a universal mind, Nature News, 2012.
- European researchers chase billion-euro technology prize, Nature News, 2011.
- Bioinformatics: Industrializing neuroscience, Markram, Nature, 2007.
- The Blue Brain Project, Markram H, Nature, 2006.
- Human Brain Project, EU Initiative.
- The Blue Brain Project @ EPFL