Blue Brain Project: Build a virtual brain in a supercomputer

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In 2005, a team of researchers at the Brain and Mind Institute of the École Polytechnique in Lausanne, Switzerland set out to do some truly wonderful things. Led by neuroscientist Henry Markram, the team, known as the Blue Brain Project, spent two years tearing down rat brains to the molecular level and using what they learned to reverse-engineer a highly detailed, functioning computer model of a rat's cortical column—a basic building block of brain structure.

You know that brains start with neurons, cells that can transmit electrochemical signals. A single neuron is like one person, standing around by themselves and playing an instrument. A cortical column is like an orchestra, with thousands of neurons communicating and working together to accomplish a single task. There are 10,000 neurons in a single rat cortical column. Ten thousand neurons, an amazing amount of complexity—just to do something simple, like twitch a single whisker. To make a whole functional rat brain, you need 100,000 cortical columns. The larger, more complex human brain is even more astounding, with some 100,000 neurons to a single cortical column and perhaps as many as 2 million columns.

Recreating that on a computer requires a frightening amount of processing capability. Each neuron, alone, needs the equivalent of a standard laptop. The computer that the Swiss team used to model a single rat cortical column is a massive beast, one of the fastest supercomputers in the world. But it's still not enough to do what Markram and his team want to accomplish next. Their new goal: Model the form and function of the entire human brain, cortical column-by-cortical column—a task that's likely to take more than a decade.

The Blue Brain Project is currently in the running for a European Commission research grant that would bring in 100 million euros a year for 10 years. The final decision won't happen until next Spring, but if Blue Brain gets the nod, it'll become the Human Brain Project—and could be a major step toward creating a man-built mind. (Or death by Skynet, depending on whether you're a glass-is-half-empty kind of person.)

On May 9, Rueters photographer Denis Bailbouse went inside the Blue Brain Project and took some beautiful photos of the people and computers that could shape the future of the human race. Take a look, be awed. (All image captions written by Reuters, not me.)

Top image: Pipettes are placed near a rat brain sample for an experiment in a lab of the Blue Brain Project at the Brain Mind Institute of the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology (EPFL) in Ecublens, near Lausanne May 9, 2011. If selected from amongst six other candidates by the Future and Emerging Technologies (FET) Flagship Program launched by the European Commission, the Blue Brain Project will upgrade to become the Human Brain Project and will receive funding up to 100 million euros a year for 10 years. The final decision will take place in April 2012. The goal of the Blue Brain Project is to reconstruct the brain piece by piece and build a virtual brain in a supercomputer. (REUTERS/Denis Balibouse)

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Cables are pictured on the Internet server at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology (EPFL) in Ecublens, near Lausanne May 9, 2011. (REUTERS/Denis Balibouse)

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Lab assistant prepares pipettes for an experiment in a lab of the Blue Brain Project at the Brain Mind Institute of the EPFL in Ecublens. (REUTERS/Denis Balibouse)

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Shi works on the 3D modelling of a neuron in a lab of the Blue Brain Project at the Brain Mind Institute of the EPFL in Ecublens (REUTERS/Denis Balibouse)

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Lab assistant Delattre prepares for an experiment in a lab of the Blue Brain Project at the Brain Mind Institute of the EPFL in Ecublens. (REUTERS/Denis Balibouse)

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Professor Henry Markram head of the Blue Brain Project poses in a lab of the Brain Mind Institute at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology (EPFL) in Ecublens (REUTERS/Denis Balibouse)

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A rat brain sample is placed into liquid for an experiment in a lab of the Blue Brain Project . (REUTERS/Denis Balibouse)

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A technician poses near a Blue Gene/P deep computer of the Blue Brain Project at the Brain Mind Institute. (REUTERS/Denis Balibouse)

For more on the Blue Brain Project, check out these stories:
Henry Markram's detailed and fascinating description of the project, written for Nature Reviews Neuroscience in 2006, before the team had finished modeling the rat cortical column.

Jonah Lehrer's story for Seed Magazine, written in 2008, that tells the story of the project, and how it met its first modeling goal.

• The well-written Blue Brain Project website itself.

• Henry Markram's 2009 TEDTalk