Some say the most complex object in the universe is the human brain and that the brain’s most complex creation is the computer. With this in mind, a team of Swiss neuroscientists and computer engineers plan to go full circle: They want to program a computer to create a brain.
The scientists, in collaboration with IBM, are launching the effort by building a computer model of the neocortical column of a rat, a single circuit of about 10,000 cells, each of which is capable of thousands of connections. Rat brain information is being downloaded into IBM’s Blue Gene computer, which can crunch through 22 trillion operations per second. Although this first model will depict only the electrical activity of the neurons, future versions will also simulate chemicals in the brain, of interest because the combination of electricity and chemistry may cause thought. Eventually, as the simulations become more sophisticated and computer technology advances, the team hopes to replicate the entire rat brain. From there they will work their way up to humans, eventually creating a computer version accurate enough to be used to research normal and abnormal brain activity.
Critics say that there is still too much mystery surrounding the goings-on of neurons to create an accurate computer reproduction. But project leader Henry Markram of the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Lausanne believes he has accumulated enough data to get things started. “The first goal is to understand this [neocortical] column,” he says. “If we understand that, I believe we are going to crack the main difficulties of understanding how the brain processes, stores, and retrieves information. That alone is an immense achievement.”