Synthetic brain in the making

all in the mind Markham is working to develop a model of the human brain because it is a key step to our understanding of the neo-cortex. Getty Images

The world’s first synthetic brain could be built within 10 years, giving us an unprecedented insight into the nature of consciousness and our perception of reality. Scientists working on the Blue Brain Project in Switzerland are the first to attempt to “reverse-engineer” the mammalian brain by recreating the behaviour of billions of neurons in a computer.

Professor Henry Markham, director of the project at the Ecole Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne, has already simulated parts of the neocortex, the most ‘modern’ region of the brain, which evolved rapidly in mammals to cope with the demands of parenthood and social situations.

Markham’s team created a 3D simulation of around 10,000 brain cells to mimic the behaviour of the rat neocortex. The way all the cells connect and send signals to each other is just as important as how many there are.

“You need one laptop to do all the calculations for one neuron, so you need ten thousand laptops,” Markham told the TEDGlobal conference in Oxford recently. Instead, he uses an IBM Blue Gene supercomputer.

The artificial brain is already revealing some of the inner workings of the most impressive 1.5kg of biological tissue ever to evolve. Show the brain a virtual image and its neurons flicker with electrical activity as the image is processed.

Mission to understand neo-cortex
Henry Markham is on a quest to find the holy grail of neuroscience, to understand the design of the neo-cortex, the newest part of the brain.

The neo-cortex, found only in mammals, was developed to deal with parenthood and complex social interactions, Markham said. The number of neurons has increased by so much that the brain has actually outgrown the space in the human skull. It began to fold back on itself, leading to the grooved and wrinkled surface of our brains. The folds increased the surface area available for the billions of neurons in the human neo-cortex.
Markham is working to develop a model of the human brain because it is a key step to our understanding of the neo-cortex, and scientists cannot continue doing animal experimentation forever. It is key to understanding diseases and disorders, including Alzheimer's and autism.

As much as 99 per cent of what we “see” is actually our brain inferring things about our surroundings, and he believes that a model of the brain will help us understand reality by understanding this fundamental internal reality.

A 3-D model of neo-cortex
Through intense study of the neo-cortex, not only the billions of neurons but just as importantly the rules of communications and connectivity, they have been able to build a three dimensional model of the neo-cortex. They have coded the rules that neurons use as a basis for communication with each other.

No two neurons are the same. They intersect in a complex network, creating what Markram described as the fabric of the brain. While the neurons are all different, the neurons fit together in a similar pattern in every human brain.

On a small scale, they now have the equations to simulate neurons and the electro-chemical reactions between them. It is a complex computer simulation. That in itself is a complex computer simulation. It is too difficult to simulate the connections between multiple neurons in silicon, Markham said.

To simulate a single neuron takes the computing power equivalent of a laptop. To build even a small model of the brain, they need a lot of laptops, about 10,000. But using an IBM supercomputer, “we can take the magic carpet for a ride.”

They are now able to stimulate this simulated brain with images. If they show the brain a rose, what happens? “We can now follow the energy. We saw these ghostly electrical columns in the neo-cortex,” Markham wrote.

They still have a lot more to do with these theories, but he said, “it is not impossible to build a brain, and if we succeed, in 10 years we will send a hologram to talk to you.”
Ultimately, scientists want to use synthetic brains to understand how sensory information from the real world is interpreted and stored, and how consciousness arises.
They may also give scientists a new way to study brain disorders and neurodegenerative diseases without having to experiment on animals.

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