Building a Brain in a Supercomputer

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Mental illness, memory, perception: they’re made of neurons and electric signals. Henry Markram claims these mysteries of the mind can be solved — and soon. He is building a detailed, realistic computer model of the human brain and its one hundred trillion — that’s 100,000,000,000,000 — synapses.

Markram is the director of the Blue Brain Project at Ecole polytechnique federale de Lausanne (EPFL), one of two Swiss Federal Institutes of Technology located in Lausanne, Switzerland. Founded in 2005 by the Brain and Mind Institute at the EPFL, Blue Brain is a supercomputing project that to study the brain’s architectural and functional principles, and reverse engineer it in order to understand brain function and dysfunction. Blue Brain can model components of the mammalian brain in precise cellular detail and simulate neuronal activity in 3D. Soon Blue Brain will be able to simulate a whole rat brain in real time.

Although the aim of the Blue Brain Project is primarily biomedical, it has brought up on some deep, contentious philosophical questions about the mind. In 2009, Henry Markram gave a TED talk where he discussed how researchers are using the brain model to address one theory of how the brain works. TED, which stands for Technology, Entertainment, Design, is a global and growing community that brings together the world’s most fascinating thinkers and doers, and challenges them to give the talk of their lives in just 18 minutes.

The theory Markram described in his TED talk is the theory that the brain creates a version of the universe and projects it, like a bubble, all around us. Blue Brain can address this theory with brain simulation and ask very systematic and rigorous questions about whether the theory could be true. According to Markram, decisions are the key things that support our perceptual bubble.

Without decisions you cannot see, you cannot think, you cannot feel. And you may think that anesthetics work by sending you into some deep sleep, or by blocking your receptors so that you don’t feel pain, but in fact most anesthetics don’t work that way. What they do is they introduce a noise into the brain so that the neurons can not understand each other. They are confused, and you can not make a decision.

An deep and abstract talk, Blue Brain may eventually shed light on the nature of consciousness itself. Check out Henry Markram’s talk below.

The Blue Brain Project is one of six proposals selected by the European Commission to compete for two huge flagship projects that will apply information and communication technologies to social problems [1]. The winners, to be decided at the end of the year, will receive an unprecedented level of funding for academia: €1 billion (US$1.4 billion) over ten years.

References

  1. European researchers chase billion-euro technology prize. Nature News. 2011 Mar 8.
About the Author

Walter Jessen is Principal at Highlight Health Media, which publishes Highlight HEALTH. He's also a senior writer at Highlight HEALTH.