Scientists to build ‘human brain’: Supercomputer will simulate the entire mind and will help fight against brain diseases

The human brain’s power could rival any machine. And now scientists are trying to build one 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.

Leading the project is Professor Henry Markram based in Switzerland, who will be working with scientists from across Europe including the Wellcome Trust Sanger Institute at Cambridge. They hope to complete it within 12 years. He said: ‘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.’

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 (£825million) 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.’

Over the past 15 years his team have painstakingly studied and managed to produce a computer simulation of a cortical column – one of the small building blocks of a mammal’s brain. They have also simulated part of a rat’s brain using a computer. But the human brain is a totally different proposition.

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 a billion billion calculations which will require the output of a nuclear power station. Finding a way to power the supercomputer will be one of the researchers’ major challenges.

The brain is still largely an unknown quantity for researchers and unravelling its mysteries – which have evolved over millions of years – is widely considered the final frontier of science.

Richard Walker, who works with Professor Markram, said: ‘Our brains consume tiny amounts of energy but they last for 90 or more years. At the moment we cannot even afford to run the biggest computers we could build, so if we can find out how the brain works, it could bring huge advances.’

Disorders of the brain, from depression and mental illness to the diseases of old age such as Alzheimer’s – which affects 800,000 people in Britain – are also a growing problem. David Cameron recently pledged £66million to fund research into the ‘national crisis’ of dementia.


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