The Human Brain Project – A Virtual Brain on the Horizon

Oh, a schizophrenic mouse! This or that part of the brain lights up when we are deciding to eat this pie or that…An ‘experiment’ using MRI to find out why women like shoes … (Someone seriously did this, proudly being photographed with an MRI machine). Ooh!

Such snappy pronouncements provide fleeting entertainment, which headline-hunter journalists are happy to provide. Sadly they tell us nothing about ourselves, or what it means to be human, biologically or socially, even if the underlying research is valid.

Now an ambitious project is trying to put all this disparate information about our brain into a super computer that will be able to simulate the human brain processes – a virtual brain (I am sure it’ll look square). The Human Brain Project (HBP) at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Lausanne explains on its website:

Neuroscience is generating exponentially growing volumes of data and knowledge on specific aspects of the healthy and diseased brain, in different species, at different ages. Yet despite these incredible advances, we still lack a unified understanding of the brain that can span its multiple levels of organisation, from genes to cognition and behaviour. The lack of such an understanding is a huge obstacle for pharmaceutical companies trying to develop drugs for brain diseases. It also explains why neuroscience has yet to significantly impact ICT [Information and Communications Technologies]. Scientists have been researching isolated aspects of the brain for more than a century but despite incredible progress, it has become obvious that it will take another century or more before we can measure every gene, protein, cell, synapse and circuit in the brain, in all possible conditions and species, at every possible age, in every possible disease. (My emphasis)

So, like a true scientist, Henry Markram, director and founder of the project is building a model. With the help of the latest supercomputers, his HBP is to collect and collate all research data from labs around the world and to “identify data that absolutely has to be measured experimentally and to predict the rest from what we already know”. When information is organized, often gaps can be filled from inference, like a jigsaw puzzle. Of course the trick is that the data used must be correct – and this may be I think the most challenging part of the project. Otherwise it’s just garbage in garbage out.

The billion-dollar, 10-year, EU supported project with multiple global partners will not only revolutionize our approach to understanding our brain (and ourselves) but also lead to a better understanding of diseases and their treatment on the molecular level, and the usefulness and side effects of drugs. In the process, with the building of an Information and Communications Technology (ICT) platform, it will also benefit computer technology research in artificial intelligence and robotics, not to mention the potential for improving computer performance by mimicking the very energy efficient biological systems. It’s a win-win situation.

The US is not sitting idle. The White House has proposed an even more radical scheme: a 10-year, $3 billion project to capture the actual brain in action, live, neuron by neuron, in real time. I reported this in my Winter News, 2012 post: The White House is interested in consciousness, along with the Human Connectome Project that is already constructing a model of the human brain in 3-D.

There is no guarantee of success in any of these projects (not even the funding) – except maybe the Connectome, already underway and with its aim of a static model. Capturing (or replicating) biological action is always difficult. But for sure, if the projects succeed, we will finally be able to see a real brain and a virtual brain side by side. And then maybe we’ll know what sets us apart as humans.

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