Reverse-engineering the brain


The image on the right is a supercomputer simulation of the microcircuitry found within a column from the neocortex of the rat brain.

The simulation is a tour de force of computational neuroscience: a single column is a highly complex structure, containing approximately 10,000 neurons and 30 million synapses, and the image is based on 15 years’ worth of research into the morphology of many different cell types in the rat cortex, and the unique repertoire of receptors and ion channels expressed by each, as well as their connectivity and electrophysiological properties.

Nevertheless, this is just the first stage of the ambitious Blue Brain Project, a collaboration between researchers at IBM and the Ecole Polytechnique Federale de Lausanne (EPFL) in Switzerland. The behaviour of the model has been compared to that of real brain tissue, and the simulation is believed to be accurate enough so that it can be scaled up to simulate the entire human brain. Project leader Henry Markram, who is director of the Brain Mind Institute at the EPFL, believes that this reverse-engineering of the human brain can be achieved within the next 10 years.


  1. #1 Blake Stacey
    November 29, 2007

    That is downright cool.

    So, I guess I better get that science-fiction novel about reverse-engineering the brain finished now, before it becomes obsolete, right?

  2. #2 John Kubie
    November 29, 2007

    show me. I’m a skeptic. Pretty pictures do not a functioning brain make.

  3. #3 Twm Davies
    December 1, 2007

    Aside from the fact that the scaling is non linear (as you increase the number of neurons, the number of connections increases), one danger of such a system is that you might be able to build it, it might be near-real time but no one understands it. The amount of computer processing required to try and interpret what the simulation is doing could take another 50 years!

  4. #4 Dave Briggs
    December 7, 2007

    That’s a beautiful picture! I have a computer background and can appreciate computing power. With Moore’s law in effect, ( computing power doubles within every couple of years), I think neuroscience and many fields are going to be producing many more beautiful pictures in the years to come. Perhaps at an exponential rate!
    Dave Briggs :~)

  5. #5 Sohaib Athar
    December 18, 2007

    I am an independent consultant working with the BBP team. It surely is a very ambitious project, though the initial aim is not to create AI, but to try to model the brain on a cellular+electrical level to understand how it functions in depth. I hope we will be able to make significant advances in neuroscience during the next phases of the project.
    Great blog btw.

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