Human brain to be built using supercomputer

April 16, 2012 03:17 pm | Updated April 19, 2012 09:25 am IST - London

A model of a human brain. File photo

A model of a human brain. File photo

Scientists are trying to build human brain using the world’s most powerful computer.

It is intended to combine all the information so far uncovered about its mysterious workings -- and replicate them on a screen, right down to the level of individual cells and molecules.

If it works it could be revolutionary for understanding devastating neurological diseases such as Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s, and even shedding light into how we think, and make decisions.

Professor Henry Markram, based in Switzerland, is leading the project and will be working with scientists from across Europe including the Wellcome Trust Sanger Institute at Cambridge.

They hope to complete it within 12 years.

"The complexity of the brain, with its billions of interconnected neurons, makes it hard for neuroscientists to truly understand how it works. Simulating it will make it much easier -- allowing them to manipulate and measure any aspect of the brain,” he said.

Housed at a facility in Dusseldorf in Germany, the ‘brain’ will feature thousands of three-dimensional images built around a semi-circular ‘cockpit’ so scientists can virtually ‘fly’ around different areas and watch how they communicate with each other.

It aims to integrate all the neuroscience research being carried out all over the world -- an estimated 60,000 scientific papers every year -- into one platform.

The project has received some funding from the EU and has been shortlisted for a 1 billion euro EU grant, which will be decided next month.

When complete it could be used to test new drugs, which could dramatically shorten the time required for licencing them than human trials, and pave the way for more intelligent robots and computers.

There are inevitably concerns about the consequences of this ‘manipulation’ and creating computers, which can think for themselves. In Germany the media have dubbed the researchers ‘Team Frankenstein’.

But Prof Markram said: “This will, when successful, help two billion people annually who suffer from some type of brain impairment.

"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,” he added. Our brains have 100 billion neurons. Each one performs billions of ‘calculations’ per second -- roughly similar to a desktop computer.

So the brain computer will need to be able to do billion calculations that will require the output of a nuclear power station.

Finding a way to power the supercomputer will be one of the researchers’ major challenges.

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