Brain simulation project – the early years

Almost two years ago we covered the launch of the Blue Brain Project an ambitious research programme to create the largest computer simulation of the brain yet created.

Now, Spiegel has an in-depth article looking at how the project is progressing.

The simulation runs on an IBM Blue Gene supercomputer and aims to simulate enough individual neurons to create virtual brain networks.

Brain researchers can use it to reproduce functions from the real organ and test their theories. As they build in new processes, the model grows ever more detailed — a sort of wiki project of the mind. It also offers an important advantage over a natural brain, since it lets researchers monitor each and every (simulated) mental activity in the machine.

But — has there been mental activity?

The newborn “Blue Brain” surprised the designers with its willfulness from the very first day. It had hardly been fed electrical impulses before strange patterns began to appear on the screen with the lightning-like flashes produced by cells that scientists recognize from actual thought processes. Groups of neurons started becoming attuned to one another until they were firing in rhythm. “It happened entirely on its own,” says Markram. “Spontaneously.”

The project has is limitations of course. Single neurons are frighteningly complex, and neuroscientists are still some way from understanding their neurochemistry in sufficient detail to create an adequate working model.

Much computer simulation of the brain (a field known as neuroinformatics) only attempts to simulate approximates of the total complexity, yet has provided some fascinating insights into how mental processes might emerge from the interaction of networks of individual neuron-like units.

Link to Spiegel article ‘Growing a Brain in Switzerland’.
Link to Blue Brain website.

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