Building a Virtual Brain: The Human Brain Project

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World experts in fields such as neuroscience, medical informatics and supercomputer technology are collaborating on an ambitious project to vastly expand our understanding of how the brain works.

Over the past few months I’ve come across several articles about the most recent trends in human brain mapping, all of which have referenced the European flagship enterprise called the Human Brain Project (HBP). Intrigued by how possible it might soon be to use supercomputers to construct a virtual human brain and therefore understand in unprecedented detail just how nature’s most complex and wondrous thinking organ functions, I decided to find out more about the project. What I found impressed, surprised and astounded me.

To say that the human brain is a complex structure whose architecture and means of functioning we’ve only just begun to understand in any meaningful way is an understatement. After all, the brain contains over 100 billion of the specialized cells we call neurons, which are themselves interconnected through over 100 trillion mysterious and intricate structures called synapses. These components communicate with one another at unbelievably fast speeds, interchanging billions of units of information and carrying out millions of complex functions, while consuming only the energy it takes to power a small light bulb.

So, even in the age of microelectronics, building a supercomputing apparatus capable of providing comprehensive and accurate models of brain functioning is no small task. But the potential for securing a wealth of new information makes this daunting project well worth the while. If we can successfully simulate the workings of a human brain, it’s quite likely we’ll also be able to simulate the circumstances that cause brain dysfunction, thus providing tremendous new insights into the nature of various brain diseases and pointing the way toward better interventions to ameliorate these conditions.

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But a supercomputer large enough and sophisticated enough to accurately map all brain activity and create a virtual model of a fully functioning brain is not yet a reality. For that reason, HBP partners have to specialize in their areas of investigation, and share their data storage resources. Still, even with intense networking between participating partners, there still isn’t enough computing power to do the job. That’s why every new thing we learn about how the fastest, most sophisticated computer — i.e., the human brain itself — works has to lead us into developing better, faster, and more intricate artificial devices such as ‘neuromorphic’ computers to help create the model. This is a most interesting and promising side benefit of the HBP itself. (See the HBP Report Abstract.) And once we’ve taken what we know about the brain’s functioning, and developed a new generation of supercomputers and other advanced technological devices, they will in turn help us create even more sophisticated and reliable models of the brain. The thought of knowledge building on itself exponentially, leading to endless possibilities, is truly mind-boggling.

The list of European and non-European allied partners in HBP reads like a who’s who list of world leaders in neuroscience and supercomputer technology. What began as a collaboration between 13 European institutions has now grown to a partnership of over 80 entities in Europe alone. And because of the monumental nature of the primary task at hand, different entities in the partnership have taken on various specialty areas of study. Some institutions and groups of institutions are focusing, for example, on deducing precisely how vision works, others on what activities in the brain make language possible. The findings of each project partner or group of partners add to the master database, to which all members of the project have access. Such sharing of information can likely lead not only to a deeper understanding of some of the brain’s more specialized functions, but also contribute substantially to the creation of the overall model of brain functioning.

Brain diseases increasingly account for the growing cost of healthcare. That’s in part because the world’s population is aging and many brain diseases tend to be more prevalent among the aged. So it’s arguable that there couldn’t be a better time to pour all the available resources we have into better understanding how the brain functions, as well as dysfunctions. Toward that end, perhaps the most ambitious aspect of HBP is the inclusion in the master database of not only all the discoveries that have been made about the molecular architecture of the brain, but also the mounds of data accumulated from various studies of and treatments for the various brain disorders. By assimilating all this information researchers hope, for example, to uncover the link between the various known DNA and RNA mutations thought to underlie many disorders and the various molecular mechanisms that dysfunction as a result of these mutations. And once a reliable model is built for how the brain actually functions, it could become quite feasible to test new drugs or other treatments ‘virtually’ without harming animals, with pretty much instantaneous feedback about potential efficacy, and with greatly shortened time between the conception of a way to treat a disease and actually bringing to market a product with high probability of success.

HBP has published an online paper reviewing the current state of the art of virtual brain modeling. It outlines all the goals and expectations of the project in many important areas, and I think it is well worth anyone’s read, not only for what it says about our current understanding about brain functioning, but also for the vision it puts forward about the frontiers HBP is likely to cross in just the next few years. And there’s a wonderful informational video on the home page that’s worth viewing as well. It speaks to all the possibilities that could flow from this truly ambitious project — possibilities that are, for lack of better words, mind-blowing!

All clinical material on this site is peer reviewed by one or more clinical psychologists or other qualified mental health professionals. This specific article was originally published by on and was last reviewed or updated by Dr Greg Mulhauser, Managing Editor on .

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