Henry Markram: A brain in a supercomputer


Henry Markram is a Professor at Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Lausanne and director of both the Blue Brain Project and the Human Brain Project.


Henry’s goal is to build a realistic computer model of the human brain. He has already succeeded at a proof of concept – building a rodent brain, and now wants to scale it up. The reasons we need this model are

  1. It is essential for us to understand our brain
  2. We cannot keep doing animal experimentation
  3. There are 2 billion people affected by mental disorder, and the drugs used to treat them are empirical. If better understood, we can develop better solutions.

So how does the brain work? One theory is that the brain builds its own version of the universe and projects this image around us. We decide the size and shape of most things around us – when we walk into a new room, 99% of the sizes, shapes, identities of objects are inferred by our brain. “I think therefore I am”. Henry’s talk will explore if a brain is capable of building such an elaborate model of the universe.

The brain took 11 billion years to form. The first big innovation was the frontal part to give instincts, but the big development for mammals was the neocortex. This dealt with parenthood and social interaction, and with humans it is much larger than mice and is still getting larger. The neocortex is covered in small modules of processing, and these are amazingly powerful. So much so that they kept increasing in number until they filled the whole skull, then started folding in on themselves.

Over the past 15 years, Henry’s team has been dissecting the neocortex – understanding the communications between neurons, cataloguing each piece, and building a 3D digital model of each neuron. By putting each of these models together and understanding the connections between them, you can rebuild the neocortical column. Each neuron intersects others in millions of places, creating a synapse that allows communication between them. This communication is in the form of an electrical charge, which interacts with a synapse to release chemicals to stimulate the next neuron.

The equations to simulate communication between neurons are simple, and already known – but you need a very powerful supercomputer to simulate the whole brain. They have done this, and although they haven’t fully trained the brain they can stimulate it with an image of a rose and see which neurons are triggered. They hope to analyse it deeper, and map these neurons to physical coordinates so we can actually see how the brain sees the universe around it. This would be an amazing step in the evolution of the universe – a time when the one brain can see the world projected by another, and in effect becomes self-aware.


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