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 [Long post alert — I want to keep them short and pithy, but the brain deserves a lot of attention, and I’m new to this blogging gig.

Synopsis for time limited  readers - scientists want to simulate the workings of a human brain in the next 10 years. Probably won't do it. But be prepared for a range of interesting brain treatments, engineering projects and widgets]

Scientists and engineers are getting more ambitious in the complex systems that they model. Earthquakes, epidemics, flight dynamics of new aircraft, and climate are routinely simulated.

 So too are some human organs — heart, lung, and the muscular system. Take a look at the exciting research and applications in this field coming out of the University of Auckland’s Bioengineering Institute.

 Now a much more ambitious biological simulation is planned. The Human Brain Project. This is a research programme that may potentially get up to €1 billion from the EU’s Futures and Emerging Technologies (FET) Flagship scheme. The project hasn’t yet been awarded this funding, but if it does it will attempt to build computer models of complete brains for a range of animals (rat, cat, and monkey) before tackling the human brain. The human model will require 500 petabytes of data (about 200 times the amount of data that Google currently holds) and computational power that is not yet available.

 The following video is of one of the research leaders, Henry Markram, talking  in 2009 about the project.

 YouTube Preview Image

 A competing group in the US, funded partly by the Pentagon, is also attempting to simulate a human brain. Both teams have previously modeled parts of brains, and hope full brain simulations can be achieved in the next 10 years. Independently, the enthusiastic techno-futurist Ray Kurzweil has predicted that the brain will be ‘reverse engineered’ by 2030.

 There is very strong interest from the medical, military and ICT sectors in applying neuroscience research to maintain mental well being, improve fighting capabilities, and create smarter gadgets and games. Advocates for the simulation projects claim the modelling will speed up our understanding of brain function, and hence development of treatments and other applications.

With demographic profiles of many western countries becoming increasingly older there are concerns that there will be a rise in neurological diseases and disorders so neuroscience is attracting more funding. The justice system is also becoming increasingly interested in how it can apply findings from neuroscience in judicial processes. Developments in neuroscience are already having implications for how we teach and learn.

 Understanding how the human brain works is perhaps the biggest scientific challenges around. Simulating a human brain involves modeling 10 billion or more neurons, each with a thousand or more connections (called synapses) to other neurons. (I’m vague here because different sources come up with different numbers.) The brain also has a range of other cells too, but the neurons are where most of the action is. At the end of this post are some links providing an overview of the human brain and some great videos of leading neuroscientists talking about the brain.

 Thanks to new tools and techniques the amount of data being collected about brain structure and function is growing at a staggering rate. The simulation projects want to pull all this information together to improve our understanding. However, as leading neuroscientist Steven Rose has noted  brain research is data rich but theory poor.

So, just because we have a lot of data doesn’t mean we can easily make sense of it. The Human Brain Project seems to be a muscular example of what Wired magazine enthusiastically proclaimed as ‘the end of theory’ — a view that with enough data the ‘truth’ will inevitably emerge without the need to specify hypotheses or theories. A modern variant of the old adage that monkeys well supplied with typewriters and time will eventually produce great literature.

 A range of neuroscientists are skeptical of the ambitious timelines for the simulations and what they will actually be able to achieve. However, they don’t generally dispute that such work will lead to important insights (as yet unknown), even if they note that the money could be better spent on other areas of brain research.

 Each of our brains is wired differently, changes over time and has unique sets of memories and thought processes. So what really could be simulated? Rather than be able to run a simulation of our own personal brain anytime soon, it is more likely that the brain simulation projects will simulate a minimal mind. Something perhaps like this guy’s

Homer's brain

None-the-less, the simulations will  help develop a better understanding of what is really going on in our minds.

One of the more interesting questions will be whether a simulated human brain demonstrates consciousness. If it does, would it be ethical to then turn it off? This seems unlikely given current understanding. John Searle’s Chinese Room argument contends that programs can’t provide computers with understanding or what we consider to be a mind. 

 If a brain can be simulated the next obvious step would be to link all these body organs together to simulate a whole human. In the coming decades may you then be able to send your simulated body to Appl-oogle’s iPersonâ„¢ 3D printing service and be ready to plug and play?

 Whole brain simulations aren’t necessary to get down and dirty with engineering the brain. Researchers are already building bits of brains in the real world – neuronal circuits are being built on chips and with nanotubes.

 Our brains are also already starting to be tinkered with and linked up with computers. These developments are likely to attract increasing ethical, social, and commercial attention over the next few years. Chips are being developed to implant into the brain to repair or enhance mental functions. Unsurprisingly, this is opening up some interesting ethical discussions. Other types of brain-computer interfaces are emerging, with some already commercially available.

 Does this mean that Kurzweil’s singularity between man and machine is as close as he claims? No. As with many areas of science, the emerging developments will highlight how little we know about how the brain and mind work.  

But it seems likely that we’ll be getting considerably more sophisticated diagnostic tools and treatments for neurological disorders over the coming years, as well as more interesting ways to connect with electronic devices. 

Of course, sci-fi fans know that messing around with our brains (or those of close relatives) often ends in tears. What we shouldn’t forget is that the brain isn’t simply a computational device. Social sciences will need to keep pace with neuroscience, and vice versa. 

Further reading: Cerebral fodder of the mind

 See how the brain works in this video or this slide show. Some of the mysteries of the brain are summarized in this article.  

Steven Rose provided a good overview on Future Directions for Neuroscience in 2007 for the MoRST Futurewatch programme. Several New Zealand researchers were commissioned to provide commentaries on his paper. Steven Price’s paper imagining the use of neuroscience in the judicial system is particularly good.

 Bradley Voytek’s Oscillatory Thoughts blog provides one neuroscientist’s take on the best neuroscience videos on TED. For radio listeners, Vilavanur Ramachandran’s 2003 BBC Reith Lectures on ‘The emerging mind’ are still great listening.