Can a Supercomputer Simulate the Entirety of the Human Brain?

By Wesley Fenlon

Neuroscientist Henry Markram's ambitions could usher in a new era of neuroscience.

Science is constantly discovering new things about the human brain. Just last week we wrote about how the brain can track a 100 mile-per-hour fastball thanks to the visual cortex. Part of the cortex is actually predicting where a fast-moving object is going to be--a 100 mile-per-hour fastball moves 12.5 feet in the amount of time it takes a signal to travel from our eyes to our brain. It's the kind of small discovery that neuroscientist Henry Markram may completely overshadow in the next decade as he attempts to do something unprecedented: model and simulate the entirety of the human brain on a supercomputer.

In January, the European Commission awarded Markram $1.3 billion in funding to pursue his ambitious goal. Back in 2009, he gave a TED talk about simulating the human brain and set out to accomplish that goal within a decade. Now he's got the kind of funding most scientists can't even dream of and the ambition to match. As neuroscientists are still making small discoveries about how the brain operates, would it be possible for Markram to chart every synapse within the next decade?

Photo credit: Sophie Moet.

Wired's great profile of Markram can't answer that question, but it does detail the challenges and promise of his research, the controversy, and Markram's grand goal of uniting the world's neuroscientists under his program. Jonathon Keats writes:

"Markram has earned that support on the strength of his work at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Lausanne, where he and a group of 15 postdocs have been taking a first stab at realizing his grand vision—simulating the behavior of a million-neuron portion of the rat neocortex. They’ve broken new ground on everything from the expression of individual rat genes to the organizing principles of the animal’s brain...

"The big question is whether these methods can scale. There’s no guarantee that Markram will be able to build out the rest of the rat brain, let alone the vastly more complex human brain. And if he can, nobody knows whether even the most faithful model will behave like a real brain—that if you build it, it will think. For all his bravado, Markram can’t answer that question. “But the only way you can find out is by building it,” he says, “and just building a brain is an incredible biological discovery process.” This is too big a job for just one lab, so Markram envisions an estimated 6,000 researchers around the world funneling data into his model."

Brain mapping is an ongoing effort at scientific institutes around the world--in April, the Obama administration proposed the BRAIN Initiative, tasked with mapping every neuron of the brain at a cost of $3 billion over 10 years. Ideally, data from BRAIN, Markram's studies, and other neuroscientists around the world can all be combined to fuel a comprehensive mapping of the human brain.

Building that data into a simulation, however, is another challenge entirely. Markram's IBM Blue Gene supercomputer, with close to a petaflop of processing power, doesn't have the computational force or the memory to fully simulate a rat brain. It needs a 100,000 fold increase to fully tackle the much more complex human brain.

"[Markram] estimates that he’ll need a supercomputer 100,000 times faster than the one he’s got," writes Wired. "Ever the optimist, he believes that Moore’s law (and the European Union) will deliver him that raw power in about a decade. However, he’ll also need far more data than even his industrial-strength Blue Brain lab can collect...Markram developed workflows that extracted experimental results from journals, strip-mining thousands of neuroscience papers only to find that the data was too inconsistent to use in a model. For a while, that looked like one of his biggest hurdles. But he has since been building standardized protocols for many of the labs participating in the Human Brain Project."

Read the full article, which goes far more in-depth into Markram's aspirations, at Wired.