Henry Markram's Blue Brain Project Vies for €1 billion Prize
[Henry] Markram, a South-African-born brain electrophysiologist who joined the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Lausanne (EPFL) a decade ago, may soon see his ambition fulfilled. The project is one of six finalists vying to win €1 billion (US$1.3 billion) as one of the European Union's two new decade-long Flagship initiatives. _Nature
The Blue Brain Project in Lausanne is attempting to model a working human brain to an exquisite level of physiologic detail -- to the ion channel level. This would require an enormous amount of computer power -- to say nothing of the electrical power required to drive and cool the apparatus when fully functional. But €1 billion can presumably still buy a great deal.
Every experiment at least tacitly involves a model, whether it is the molecular structure of an ion channel or the dynamics of a cortical circuit. With computers, Markram realized, you could encode all of those models explicitly and get them to work together. That would help researchers to find the gaps and contradictions in their knowledge and identify the experiments needed to resolve them.
Markram's insight wasn't original: scientists have been devising mathematical models of neural activity since the early twentieth century, and using computers for the task since the 1950s (see page 462). But his ambition was vast. Instead of modelling each neuron as, say, a point-like node in a larger neural network, he proposed to model them in all their multi-branching detail — down to their myriad ion channels (see 'Building a brain'). And instead of modelling just the neural circuits involved in, say, the sense of smell, he wanted to model everything, “from the genetic level, the molecular level, the neurons and synapses, how microcircuits are formed, macrocircuits, mesocircuits, brain areas — until we get to understand how to link these levels, all the way up to behaviour and cognition”. _Nature...BlueBrain
By the end of 2005, his team had integrated all the relevant portions of this data set into a single-neuron model. By 2008, the researchers had linked about 10,000 such models into a simulation of a tube-shaped piece of cortex known as a cortical column. Now, using a more advanced version of Blue Gene, they have simulated 100 interconnected columns.
The effort has yielded some discoveries, says Markram, such as the as-yet unpublished statistical distribution of synapses in a column. But its real achievement has been to prove that unifying models can, as promised, serve as repositories for data on cortical structure and function. Indeed, most of the team's efforts have gone into creating “the huge ecosystem of infrastructure and software” required to make Blue Brain useful to every neuroscientist, says Markram. This includes automatic tools for turning data into simulations, and informatics tools such as http://channelpedia.net — a user-editable website that automatically collates structural data on ion channels from publications in the PubMed database, and currently incorporates some 180,000 abstracts.
The ultimate goal was always to integrate data across the entire brain, says Markram. The opportunity to approach that scale finally arose in December 2009, when the European Union announced that it was prepared to pour some €1 billion into each of two high-risk, but potentially transformational, Flagship projects. Markram, who had been part of the 27-member advisory group that endorsed the initiative, lost no time in organizing his own entry. And in May 2011, the HBP was named as one of six candidates that would receive seed money and prepare a full-scale proposal, due in May 2012. _Nature
The project is both ambitious and expensive. It is also more complex and difficult than can currently be anticipated or planned for. But kudos to Henry Markram for making the attempt.