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Step Inside the Blue Brain Project

Step Inside the Blue Brain Project

"The brain, the masterpiece of creation, is almost unknown to us." -- Nicolaus Steno, 1669

In the last century, leaps have been made in understanding specific aspects of brain function but to this day, a thorough understanding of how the brain produces each function poses something of an enigma. How does the brain use its internal machinery to produce perception, emotion, thought and every other cognitive ability? We may know, to a point, what machinery is involved, how the machinery is arranged and the bare basics of what is going on but we don’t know enough to understand what exactly causes Alzheimer’s or how to cure it. Or what causes schizophrenia, dementia, depression, autism and every other neurological disorder (approximately 600 of them) for that matter.

And, surprise, we also don’t know how to cure most of them.

Over one billion people are estimated to suffer from neurological disorders worldwide. If those suffering from mental or psychiatric disorders are also included in the statistic, the number rises to nearly two billion (World Health Organization - http://www.who.int/en/). What is really needed are strategies which move medicine and science towards a foreseeable end to brain-related disorders. Disorders they may be, but really, they’re tragedies because what remains for a person whose brain has ceased to function appropriately?

Not much.

 So the real question remains, have we really made a leap forward in the understanding of the brain? Well, if we could integrate everything that’s known about the brain i.e. aggregate all the puzzle pieces of data and knowledge that have been produced over time and build it all into a coherent picture, we could really say we have. But regrettably, this knowledge is as dispersed as billions of puzzle pieces thrown haphazardly all over the globe – pieces nestled in the crooks and crannies of millions of scientific papers. As a result, we don’t know that much about how all the different little ‘systems’ in the brain work together to produce the beautiful outcome of cognition and consciousness. Simply, we cannot see the complete picture because up until now, there has been no real systematic way of collecting all the pieces. Understanding the human brain and how it constructs our subjective reality of the world is a necessary and important frontier in scientific research.

Funded entirely by the Swiss Government, On 1 July 2005, the Brain Mind Institute at the Ecole Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne (EPFL) and International Business Machines (IBM) launched the Blue Brain Project.  The Blue Brain Project is located in building J of EPFL’s new Quartier d’Innovation.

The goal of this project is to create biologically accurate computer simulations of mammalian brains with a final intention of using these simulations to understand the processes underlying cognitive abilities and how and why they go awry. To achieve this very ambitious goal, the Blue Brain Project has adopted a unique strategy to science:

·      extensive data integration;

·      systematic search for basic principles (rules) of brain design in order to predict specific features of the brain without having to measure them directly (predictive reverse engineering the brain from the bottom-up without having to measure every detail);

·      amalgamate into models, simulations and visualizations of the brain.

In other words, the Blue Brain Project integrates new and existing data as well as knowledge (from literature) to create ever-increasingly complex (and more accurate) models and visual simulations of the mammalian (eventually the human) brain. These models, simulations and visualizations provide a new window into how cognitive processes emerge from the basic building blocks of the brain. As the window’s size increases through the methodical addition of data, the picture gains clarity. These models and simulations can also be used to highlight which data are missing and thus indicate the gaps in our knowledge about the brain. 

 The Blue Brain Project is the first real systematic approach to collecting the scattered puzzle pieces of knowledge about the brain. It’s important to understand that the project yields important benefits through the process of creating more accurate simulations - every step is an important learning curve. While simulating the mammlian brain - the major goal of the Blue Brain Project – is a serious milestone in scientific research and technology, it is the process of moving towards this goal that produces the real difference. In order to reach this ambitious goal, the project has to create and refine the ‘tools’, which come in the form of new scientific research methodology, computer software, neuroinformatics, and extensive scientific collaboration just to mention a few.  Some of the tools (software, techniques etc) will gradually become available to the public body of scientists and researchers. The 'tools' of the Blue Brain Project will be discussed in more detail in later posts.

 Today, the Blue Brain Project is capable of simulating a mesocircuit of neocortical columns. These columns are simulated all the way down to cellular detail and exhibit simple emergent behaviors. There is ongoing research to increase the detail of the column to include molecular simulations but as of yet, the computing power remains insufficient to do this.

The project is directed by Henry Markram and composed of about 50 researchers and staff, each member coming from diverse scientific and industrial backgrounds. For a brief introduction to each team member, see bluebrain.epfl.ch. These individuals are arranged into groups which focus on specific aspects of the project – compartmentalized into research and computational domains. For example, the morphologies of neurons; distribution of neurons; connectivity of neurons; synaptic properties; and subcellular workings of neurons; integration into simulations; visualization; and support. Learn about what these groups are doing in more depth in later blog posts. 

--- Melissa Cochrane

 *Disclaimer: All information reflects my opinion and perspective of the  complicated inner workings of the Blue Brain Project. 

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