$1 Billion Virtual Brain could Shed Light on Autism

Dr. Henry Markram is Director of the Blue Brain Project at École Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne (EPFL). It is a supercomputing project that can model components of the mammalian brain to precise cellular detail — and simulate their activity in 3D. Dr. Henry Markram will be one of the noted speakers at the ICare4Autism International Autism Conference in Jerusalem August 1 & 2, 2012, about Blue Brain and how they could eventually go about using simulations to try to understand the circuit deficits they have been finding.

Dr. Henry Markram is Director of the Blue Brain Project at École Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne (EPFL).

Henry Markram, PhD, plans to build a brain from scratch. Markram, a South-African-born brain electrophysiologist who joined the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Lausanne (EPFL) a decade ago, believes the only way to really understand how human brains work is to create one, then subject it to a variety of experiments.

To that end, Dr. Markram has established the Human Brain Project (HBP). The project aims to incorporate the all the pieces of the brain puzzle that have been discovered by neuroscientists over the past few decades, from the structures of ion channels to the mechanisms of conscious decision-making, into a single supercomputer model: a virtual brain.

The computing power that would be required to run such a machine has not yet been established but Dr. Markram believes that scientists should be anticipating advances in technology and start work on the project now.

If successful, the resulting model will be capable of learning and could gradually develop complex cognitive abilities, much like a living human.

The plan is controversial; some scientists think it just won’t work, while others expect a virtual brain will be just as puzzling and difficult to work with as a real one. Nonetheless, the Human Brain Project has been selected as a finalist for the European Union’s two new Flagship initiatives — grants worth 1 billion Euros ($1.3 billion) apiece.

If the HBP is selected, one of the key goals will be to make it highly collaborative and Internet-accessible, open to researchers from around the world, says Dr. Markram, adding that the project consortium already comprises some 150 principal investigators and 70 institutions in 22 countries. “It will be lots of Einsteins coming together to build a brain,” he says, each bringing his or her own ideas and expertise.

Dr. Markram seems to be gaining support. Last year, the board that oversees both the ETH and the EPFL eagerly endorsed the Blue Brain Project after a meticulous review by a four-member panel that included two outspoken sceptics of Dr. Markram’s approach. The board asked the Swiss parliament to commit 75 million Swiss francs (US$81 million) to the project for 2013–16 — more than ten times Blue Brain’s current budget. Parliament’s decision is expected next month.

Dr. Markram is positive that the European Union will come to a similar conclusion about the HBP. However, if the project isn’t endorsed, says Dr. Markram, “we’ll just continue with Blue Brain” — although it may take a lot longer to reach a full brain simulation.

Dr. Markram feels that the past is on his side. “Simulation-based research is an inevitability,” he declared. “If I get stopped from doing this, it’s going to happen. It has happened already in many areas of science. And it is going to happen in life science.”

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One Comment

  1. dan fu
    Posted March 15, 2012 at 7:02 am | Permalink

    The idea of Dr. Henry, building a human brain from scratch is not the first idea nor attempt. It has been done throughout history. The only problem is, nobody understands it except those who build it. I support Dr. Henry”s idea for a reason, yes, it can be don e. However, Dr. Henry should know that there is an easy way of building the brain. And also you can’t build brain and forget its body and expect fully understanding. But the understanding of how brain functions is extremely complicated in today”s level of human understanding, but easy for the builder. It must be understood that building brain does not mean creating life. I am UM.

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