Blue Brain Project: modelling the human brain in the lab

THE GOAL: The project is aimed at building a facility that would aim at data integration and help build brain models. Photo: Ch. Vijaya Bhaskar

THE GOAL: The project is aimed at building a facility that would aim at data integration and help build brain models. Photo: Ch. Vijaya Bhaskar   | Photo Credit: CH_VIJAYA BHASKAR

Science has advanced in the Second Millennium in ways that we now challenge ourselves into doing what we could not have earlier. We have embarked on an experiment to determine the ultimate particle of which all nuclei, atoms, molecules and materials are made anywhere on earth or in the vast sky. We look for the “God particle”. We have sent man-made crafts to other planets, and have made machines and tools that enquire whether life exists elsewhere in the sky, and whether there are other planets similar to ours that may supports life- “second earths”. We have read the “book of human life”, the 3.2 billion- letter-long code of DNA that makes us what we are.

But the book of life tells us how our body works. DNA determines the physiology and biochemistry. What about the brain? Can we ‘model' the human brain in the laboratory? How do the trillions of cells in our brain connect with one another so that it can do all that it does – pick up information from the outside world, make sense out of it and act, learn things and control our thoughts?

There are two ways to approach this grand challenge. One is to try and understand the neurons (nerve cells) of “lower” organisms – worms, flies, fish, rats and such, and build on this knowledge. This involves experiments on the “normal” organism and on its “mutants” – its cousins who are born (or tampered with in the lab) with one or more neural problem. Many biologists are involved in such experiments, and several more directly study humans with neurological problems and try to make sense out of the basis behind such errors in the brain.

This field is busy; every year as many as 60,000 papers are published in this area of neuroscience. But we need to learn from them, bring the pieces together and make sense out of them. This approach is incremental, building from what we have learnt and plan new experiments there from. With advent of computers, another approach called in silico (since computers use silica chips) has emerged. This exploits the fact that information is collected and collated in the brain via connections between neurons; based on the results of such neural interactions, the brain processes the information and acts on it. So then, why not model this using the computer?

By the mid-1970s, information technology had advanced to such a level that companies, notably IBM, had thought of modelling the “thought” behind chess games that we humans play. The advanced computers programming that they did at that time was christened “Deep Thought” (a term coined by researchers at Carnegie Mellon University, including Dr. Thomas Anantharaman). By the 1990s, IBM had put together a then gigantic computer system that was named ‘Blue Gene' (blue being the nickname for IBM, and gene referring to the kind of biologically realistic model of DNA-based and protein- based information processing). One of the noteworthy programming done using the capabilities of Blue Gene was to play chess. Real chess involves calculating the consequences of moving pieces from place to place, each step determined by the possible consequences of what the “opponent” does in response, with the ultimate aim of winning. Having done this, Blue Gene challenged a human champion, Gary Kasparov, to a series of chess games. (Comfortingly for us, the human won over the machine then, but who knows what tomorrow has to offer).

It is these advances in computers that led Dr. Henry Markram of Ecole Polytechnique Federal de Lausanne, Switzerland, to think of creating supercomputer models of the brain that would be accurate to the last biological details. To this end, he has put together what he calls the Blue Brain Project (the blue here symbolizing supercomputers).

The approach of Blue Brain is binary. It uses the information available from the hundreds of thousands of publications of neuroscientists on one hand, and ability of computer programmers to create connectivities between the millions of “neurons” in silico on the other. Combining the two, he expects to build a facility that would aim at data integration and help build brain models.

What has been achieved so far? His group was able to incorporate data collected from genetics, cell signalling pathways and electrophysiology, and program them on a supercomputer. And by 2006, they were able to simulate one of the neocortical columns of the brain of a rat. The neocortex is that part of the brain responsible for higher functions such as thought and consciousness. The neocortex of the rate consists of many columns, each 2 mm tall and 0.5 mm thick and has 10,000 neurons, which are interconnected through synapses (connecting junctions or ‘solders'). The number of such synapses in one such rat column is 100 million. The task is thus not trivial and Markram believes that by the next a few months, a cellular circuit of 100 neocortical columns and a million cells will have been built.

And given enough money, it should be possible in about 10 years hence, to get the first to the first draft of a unified model of the human brain. It will not be a complete model, but one that will account for what we know. Believable Boast by the Builder of the Blue Brain! Hope the Bursaries Buy it! (An interview of Dr Markram by Greg miller appears in the 11 November 2011 issue of Science).


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Printable version | Sep 29, 2020 8:40:37 PM |

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