The Man Who Builds Brains

[div class=attrib]From Discover:[end-div]

On the quarter-mile walk between his office at the École Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne in Switzerland and the nerve center of his research across campus, Henry Markram gets a brisk reminder of the rapidly narrowing gap between human and machine. At one point he passes a museumlike display filled with the relics of old supercomputers, a memorial to their technological limitations. At the end of his trip he confronts his IBM Blue Gene/P—shiny, black, and sloped on one side like a sports car. That new supercomputer is the center­piece of the Blue Brain Project, tasked with simulating every aspect of the workings of a living brain.

Markram, the 47-year-old founder and codirector of the Brain Mind Institute at the EPFL, is the project’s leader and cheerleader. A South African neuroscientist, he received his doctorate from the Weizmann Institute of Science in Israel and studied as a Fulbright Scholar at the National Institutes of Health. For the past 15 years he and his team have been collecting data on the neocortex, the part of the brain that lets us think, speak, and remember. The plan is to use the data from these studies to create a comprehensive, three-dimensional simulation of a mammalian brain. Such a digital re-creation that matches all the behaviors and structures of a biological brain would provide an unprecedented opportunity to study the fundamental nature of cognition and of disorders such as depression and schizophrenia.

Until recently there was no computer powerful enough to take all our knowledge of the brain and apply it to a model. Blue Gene has changed that. It contains four monolithic, refrigerator-size machines, each of which processes data at a peak speed of 56 tera­flops (teraflops being one trillion floating-point operations per second). At $2 million per rack, this Blue Gene is not cheap, but it is affordable enough to give Markram a shot with this ambitious project. Each of Blue Gene’s more than 16,000 processors is used to simulate approximately one thousand virtual neurons. By getting the neurons to interact with one another, Markram’s team makes the computer operate like a brain. In its trial runs Markram’s Blue Gene has emulated just a single neocortical column in a two-week-old rat. But in principle, the simulated brain will continue to get more and more powerful as it attempts to rival the one in its creator’s head. “We’ve reached the end of phase one, which for us is the proof of concept,” Markram says. “We can, I think, categorically say that it is possible to build a model of the brain.” In fact, he insists that a fully functioning model of a human brain can be built within a decade.

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