Bringing a virtual brain to life

March 20, 2013

Neocortex (credit: Ecole Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne)

In 2009, Dr. Henry Markram conceived of the Human Brain Project, a sprawling and controversial initiative of more than 150 institutions around the world that he hopes will bring scientists together to realize his dream, as The New York Times notes.

In January, the European Union raised the stakes by awarding the project a 10-year grant of up to $1.3 billion — an unheard-of sum in neuroscience.

An equally ambitious “big brain” idea is in the works in the United States: The Obama administration is expected to propose its own project, with up to $3 billion allocated over a decade to develop technologies to track the electrical activity of every neuron in the brain.

But just as many obstacles stand in the way of the American project, a number of scientists have expressed serious reservations about Markram’s project.

Some say we don’t know enough about the brain to simulate it on a supercomputer. And even if we did, these critics ask, what would be the value of building such a complicated “virtual brain”? Some researchers say it is premature to invest money in a simulation while important principles of brain function remain to be discovered.

Haim Sompolinsky, a neuroscientist at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, said: “The rhetoric is that in a decade they will be able to reverse-engineer the human brain in computers. This is fantasy. Nothing will come close to it in a decade.”

Some say the controversy surrounding Dr. Markram’s work distracts from the real issue: How should neuroscience harness its resources to achieve true understanding of the brain?

“Some 10,000 laboratories worldwide are pursuing distinct questions about the brain,” Dr. Koch of the Allen Institute wrote in the journal Nature. “Neuroscience is a splintered field.”

Dr. Markram agreed. The Human Brain Project, he said, will provide a “unifying principle” for scientists to rally around.

For the first time, data from laboratories around the world will be in one place, he said, adding that trying to build a simulation will drive advances in fields like computing and robotics. An entire division of the project is devoted to creating a new breed of intelligent robots with “neuromorphic” microchips designed like neurons in the human brain.