Reconstructing the brain piece by piece and building a virtual brain in a supercomputer—these are some of the goals of the Blue Brain Project. The virtual brain will be an exceptional tool giving neuroscientists a new understanding of the brain and a better understanding of neurological diseases.
The Blue Brain project began in 2005 with an agreement between the EPFL and IBM, which supplied the BlueGene/L supercomputer acquired by EPFL to build the virtual brain.
The computing power needed is considerable. Each simulated neuron requires the equivalent of a laptop computer. A model of the whole brain would have billions. Supercomputing technology is rapidly approaching a level where simulating the whole brain becomes a concrete possibility.
As a first step, the project succeeded in simulating a rat cortical column. This neuronal network, the size of a pinhead, recurs repeatedly in the cortex. A rat’s brain has about 100,000 columns of in the order of 10,000 neurons each. In humans, the numbers are dizzying—a human cortex may have as many as two million columns, each having in the order of 100,000 neurons each.
Blue Brain is a resounding success. In five years of work, Henry Markram’s team has perfected a facility that can create realistic models of one of the brain’s essential building blocks. This process is entirely data driven and essentially automatically executed on the supercomputer. Meanwhile the generated models show a behavior already observed in years of neuroscientific experiments. These models will be basic building blocks for larger scale models leading towards a complete virtual brain.