Blue Brain Project: the human brain on a super computer (part 1)

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Neuroscientist Henry Markram’s ambitions are far from modest to say the least. His aim is to build a complete simulation of the human brain and run it on a super computer. This all-European project is called Blue Brain. At the moment there is no system remotely capable of running such a mega complex model. Markram is certain though that around 2020 there will be enough computing power available. Part of his project is the development of processor chips that match the flexibility of brain circuits. Of course he doesn´t work alone. He has recruited top neuro- and computer scientists at 80 research centers all over Europe.

Modelling every single detail of our brains

One of the remarkable features of the project is that it tries to achieve a truly complete brain simulation by meticulously modelling even the smallest processes taking place inside single neurons. In the past there have been many modest attempts at modelling brain behaviours. They were primarily aimed at a more top down approach. Why would you need to incorporate the complex architecture of neurons if you can model their behaviour directly, critics of Blue Brain say.

Can this model help us understand the human brain?

Markram has recently been able to secure grants of over one billion euro’s to further his research. There are many critics though, especially among neuroscientists who see funding for less ambitious but vital research go up in smoke. To begin with, they don’t believe that Markram can deliver when it comes to claims that his project will make us understand how the brain works and how brain diseases like Alzheimer, Parkinsons alter normal functioning. Some say that even in the unlikely event that the Blue Brain Project succeeds in building a human brain in a computer, we won’t be able to understand it any better than we understand a human brain. It’s like making an exact replica of the Mona Lisa, down to copying intricate details of the chemical composition of the paint. Will it bring us one step closer to understanding the genius of Leonardo da Vinci?

Lessons from another mega-scale project

The outcome of Blue Brain is impossible to predict. There haven’t been many projects of such a vast scale. One that comes to mind is the Human Genome Project that completed a map of the Human DNA in 2003. Here the original claims were also refuted by many scientists. Still, through the years the advances in technology made it possible for the project to succeed. On the downside though, we now know that genetic processes are much more complex than we thought. Even this detailed map of human DNA didn’t make us understand how genes affect us humans. Big expectations of large advances in the treatment of all sorts of diseases weren’t satisfied. But still the DNA-map is vital for current genetic research and in that way it certainly has been a worthwile endeavor.

Integration of data

Markram says that there is a need to bring  highly specialized fields together. A lot of findings never get connected to knowledge from other academic disciplines. Maybe the project will at least spark more integration of the data pouring out of thousands research centers, all dedicated to the brain.

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