The blue braing project

August 4, 2014

Dr Keith Roberts recently attended the ENCP ( European College of Neuropsychopharmacology) Congress in Barcelona.

Researchers and clinicians from around the world gathered to hear the results of some of the most advanced research in neuroscience.

The keynote speech was given by Prof Henry Markram from the Blue Brain Project of the École Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne Switzerland.

his project aims to reconstruct the brain using supercomputers.

The project started in 2005 and as the first step the project succeeded in simulating a rat cortical column. These neuronal networks consist of approximately 10,000 neurons. They are around the size of a pin head. They occur repeatedly throughout the brain. A rat brain has around 100,000 columns. The human brain has many many more.

Each cortical column appears to be allotted a single simple role. For example in the rat brain one specific column is devoted to each whisker.

It takes 20,000 experiments to map a neural circuit. The human brain consists of around 86 billion neurons with 100 trillion synaptic connections. It would be impossible to map these out using routine experiments.

What the Blue Project intends to do is to understand the building blocks of the brain, the neuronal columns, and using statistical simulations predict the way the neurons combine and function, and compare these simulations against real data from biology.

Many in the field doubted whether this was possible or realistic but recently the Blue Brain project was funded by the European Union to the tune of 100 million Euros.

The aim of the research is further understanding of the brain.

This, it is hoped, will lead to better medications and treatments for brain illnesses including addictions, depression and schizophrenia.

There is also another thread of research that hopes to point in another direction. That is to change the architecture of computers to be more like a brain, with the aim of producing a computer which works much quicker than a brain but uses far less energy than today’s supercomputers.

The Blue Brain Project can be compared to the Human Genome Project, which mapped 3.3 billion base pairs making the 20,000 to 25,000 genes within our chromosomes. This too was initially thought to be overly ambitious. However the task was completed 5 years ahead of target and costs involved dropped significantly. Much basic science has been discovered about our genes but the hope for personalised medicine held out by many is still some way off in the future. Probably the benefits of the Blue Brain Project will be profound but distant.

There was recently a very informative newspaper article in “The Guardian” about Prof. Markram and the Blue Brain Project.

The Blue Brian project made an introductory video to explain their work.

HBP-videoverview from Human Brain Project on Vimeo.

There is also a 10 year project to make a series of documentary films on the project.

Currently the latest film is “Year Three”