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Modelling a 'Magical Machine': Researchers Hope to Build a Brain

By Cinthia Briseño and

A research team called the Human Brain Project hopes to build a complete computer model of what project leader Henry Markram calls a "magical machine." They are seeking to secure a billion-euro grant from the European Union for the project, which could result in disease cures, new supercomputers and intelligent robots.

Photo Gallery: Modelling the Human Brain Photos

One terabyte of information per second is currently hurtling through Henry Markram's brain -- or perhaps even more. When he looks to the left, he sees Berlin's slender TV tower, in front of him he sees half a dozen moderately attentive journalists. Markram, looking a little bleary-eyed, can hear their pens scratching across the paper of their notebooks and the street noise on Karl-Marx-Allee outside the window. He can smell spring in the big city, here in downtown Berlin, and he can talk about his work. He is doing all of these things at the same time, and yet to do so his brain needs less than one tenth of the energy being consumed by the laptop in front of him.

It is precisely because of these achievements and this efficiency that Markram, a neuroscientist at the École Polytechnique Fédérale in Lausanne, Switzerland, is so fascinated with the human brain. Now, in the enormous research project he heads, Markram and a team of scientists from nine European countries hope to uncover the brain's secrets.

It would be an understatement to call the project ambitious. Indeed, the Human Brain Project (HBP) aims to do nothing less than completely model the human brain in a supercomputer. The scientists hope to use the resulting insights to finally make some headway in the battle against Alzheimer's and Parkinson's diseases, as well as make it possible to develop new supercomputers.

"This is one of the three grand challenges for humanity. We need to understand earth, space and the brain. We need to understand what makes us human." Markram says.

Needs Political Support

The native of South Africa is currently on a tour of major European cities campaigning for his project. Half a dozen German colleagues are likewise trying to drum up attention. After all, such a grand undertaking needs significant funding. And to get that funding -- the project is applying for a grant from a European Union subsidy program called the FET Flagship Initiative -- the scientists need political support.

At stake is nothing less than €1 billion ($1.42 billion), spread over 10 years. Five other consortiums are also competing for funding from Brussels. The subjects they address include the use of graphemes -- ultra-thin carbon sheets -- in computer technology, robotic assistance systems and so-called virtual patients, which are used to create and test individual therapies. Two projects will be selected next year. In addition to scientific excellence, proportional geographical representation will likely be an EU funding criteria.

The scientists and researchers working with the Human Brain Project -- neuroscientists, geneticists, computer scientists, robotics experts and ethicists -- are optimistic. One of their key selling points is that their project can help improve our use of existing knowledge. There are currently about 200,000 neuroscientists worldwide, who have produced millions of scientific articles. "The knowledge is fragmented," says Markram. "It's time to bring these pieces together."

Similar Disappointment?

The sales pitch, in short, is a good one. But big ventures like the Human Brain Project not only cost vast sums of money, but they also raise high expectations, especially when it comes to advancements in the treatment of diseases that are thus far incurable. Not long ago, it was the human genome project -- but little has changed for patients as a result. Alzheimer's continues to plague mankind, as do Parkinson's and amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, also known as Lou Gehrig's disease.

Could the HBP end in similar disappointment? The scientists involved vehemently dispute the possibility -- mostly, they argue, because practical applications are to be expected early in the course of the project. They include new design principles for energy-efficient computers or for new robots. In addition to providing insights in basic research, the scientists say, HBP will spin off new projects early on.

Furthermore, says Markram, the development of new drugs is slow in part because pharmaceutical companies are unable to shoulder the huge investments involved. As a result, he says, a decreasing number of patents are being sought for drugs to treat brain ailments. The Human Brain Project could reverse the trend -- companies would be able to use the resulting brain model to test new ideas.

A Data Tsunami Is Approaching

Scientists are paying particular attention to the cerebral cortex. This layer on the outside of brain, only a few millimeters thick, is the most important condition of it evolution. It is the starting point for efforts to understand what makes us tick -- and for endeavors to find solutions when things go wrong. Our brain builds its version of the universe in the cerebral cortex. The vast majority of what we see doesn't enter the brain through the eye. It is instead is based on the impressions, experiences and decisions in our brain.

Markham already completed important preparatory work for the computer modeling of the brain with his Blue Brain Project, an attempt to understand and model the molecular makeup of the mammalian brain. He modeled a tiny part of a rat brain, a so-called neocortical column, at the cell level. To understand what one of these columns does, it's helpful to imagine the cerebral cortex as a giant piano. There are millions of neocortical columns on the surface, and each of them produces a tone, in a manner of speaking. When they are simulated, the columns produce a symphony together. Understanding the design of these neocortical columns is a holy grail of sorts for neuroscientists.

It is important to understand the rules of communication among the nerve cells. The individual cells do not communicate at random, but instead seek specifically targeted communication partners. The axes of nerve cells intersect at millions of different points, where they can form a synapse. This makes communication between individual neurons possible. In a recent article in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, Markram writes that such connections are also developed entirely without external influence. This could indicate a sort of innate knowledge that all people have in common. Markram refers to it as the "Lego blocks" of the brain, noting that each person assembles his own world on the basis of this innate knowledge.

Simulation to Be Complete by 2023

Modeling all of this in a computer is extremely complex. Markram's current model encompasses tens of thousands of neurons. But this isn't nearly enough to come within striking range of the secret of our brain. To do that, scientists will have to assemble countless other partial models, which are to be combined to create a functioning total simulation by 2023.

The supercomputers at the Jülich Research Center near Cologne are expected to play an important role in this process. The brain simulation will require an enormous volume of data, or what scientist Markram calls a "tsunami of data." One of the challenges for scientists working under Thomas Lippert, head of the Jülich Supercomputing Centre, is to figure out how to make the computer process only a certain part of the data at a given time, but without completely losing sight of the rest. They also have to develop an imaging method, such as large, three-dimensional holograms, to depict the massive amounts of data.

All it takes is a look at the work of Jülich neuroscientist Katrin Amunts to understand the sheer volume of information at hand. The team she heads is compiling a detailed atlas of the human brain. To do so, they cut a brain into 8,000 slices and digitized them with a high-performance scanner. The brain model generated in this way consists of cuboids, each measuring 10 by 10 by 20 micrometers, and the size of the data set is three terabytes. Brain atlases with higher resolutions, says Amunts, would probably consist of more than 700 terabytes. By comparison, the Watson supercomputer, which defeated human quiz-show candidates in the United States in February, had a working memory of 16 terabytes.

For our brain, of course, such volumes of data pose little problem. And, whereas a computer invariably crashes when its integrated circuits crumble, the opposite seems to be true with our brains.

"We lose 10,000 neurons a day, and still we get wiser," says Markram. "The brain is a magical machine."

Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan


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