Functioning model of human brain could be built within 10 years
21 September 2009
A model that replicates the functions of the human brain is feasible
in 10 years, according to neuroscientist Professor Henry Markram of the
Brain Mind Institute in Switzerland. "I absolutely believe it is
technically and biologically possible. The only uncertainty is
financial. It is an extremely expensive project and not all is yet
The apparent complexity of the human mind is not a barrier to
building a ‘replica' brain claims Professor Markram. "The brain is of
course extremely complex because it has trillions of synapses, billions
of neurons, millions of proteins, and thousands of genes. But they are
still finite in number. Today's technology is already highly
sophisticated and it allows us to reverse engineer the brain rapidly."
An example of the capability already in place is that today's robots
can do screenings and mappings tens of thousands of times faster than
human scientists and technicians.
Another hurdle on the path to a model human brain is that 100 years
of neuroscience discovery has led to millions of fragments of data and
knowledge that have never been brought together and exploited fully.
"Actually no- one even knows what we already understand about the
brain," says Professor Markram. "A model would serve to bring this all
together and then allow anyone to test whatever theory you want about
the brain. The biggest challenge is to understand how
electrical-magnetic-chemical patterns in the brain convert into our
perception of reality.
"We think we see with our eyes, but in fact most of what we ‘see' is
generated as a projection by your brain. So what are we actually looking
at when we look at something ‘outside' of us?"
For Professor Markram, the most exciting part of his research is
putting together the hundreds of thousands of small pieces of data that
his lab has collected over the past 15 years, and seeing what a
microcircuit of the brain looks like.
"When we first switched it on it already started to display some
interesting emergent properties. But this is just the beginning because
we know now that it is possible to build it. As we progress we are
learning about design secrets of our brains which were unimaginable
"In fact the brain uses some simple rules to solve highly complex
problems and extracting each of these rules one by one is very exciting.
For example we have been surprised at finding simple design principles
that allow billions of neurons to connect to each other. I think we will
understand how the brain is designed and works before we have finished
The opportunities for this neuroscience research challenge are
immense explains Professor Markram: "A brain model will sit on a massive
supercomputer and serve as a kind of educational and diagnostic service
to society. As the industrial revolution in science progresses we will
generate more data than anyone can track or any computer can store, so
models that can absorb it are simply unavoidable.
"It is also essential to build models when it comes to treating brain
diseases affecting around two billion people. At present, there is no
brain disease for which we really understand what has gone wrong in the
processing, in the circuits, neurons or synapses. It is also important
if we are to replace the need for the millions of animal experiments
each year for brain research."
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