TED TALK: Building a 3D model of the mammalian brain
HERE’S something that might blow your neo cortex. Neuroscientists are confident that within the next 10 years they will be able to construct an artificial human brain that functions very much like the real thing.
This is according to brain expert Henry Markram — director of Blue Brain, a supercomputing project that models components of the mammalian brain to precise cellular detail — and simulate their activity in 3D. Markram’s ultimate goal is to build a detailed, realistic computer model of the entire human brain.
Talk of neurology tends to be very scientific by nature, so I have attempted to dissect Markram’s work from a talk he gave at TED — a small non-profit organisation devoted to “ideas worth spreading”. TED started out in 1984 as a conference bringing together people from the three worlds of technology, entertainment and design, and the talks given in these fields are simply fantastic.
BUILDING A BRAIN
Understanding the human brain is a key step in evolution that will better equip human beings to understand one another and the societies in which they live. Being able to study and experiment with working models of the human brain will also do away with the need for animal experimentation.
In his talk, Markram pointed out that there are over two billion people on the planet today suffering from mental disorders. The drugs that are used to treat such disorders are largely empirical and far from conclusive. Understanding the human brain may lead to more concrete solutions to treating people with such disorders.
There are many theories regarding how the brain works. One that is drawing the most attention according to Markram (pictured right) is one that theorises how the brain creates or builds a version of the universe and projects this around us. This particular theory has been part of philosophical debate for centuries. However, with brain simulation, this theory can finally be tested and explored further.
Markram highlights decisions as the main factor influencing our perceptual bubbles. Upon walking into a room for example, one has to immediately process all kinds of information regarding what you see. Decisions regarding the size of the room, its dimensions, the height to the roof, all the objects in the room etc. have to be made in an instant. Markram posits that 99% of what we see is not what enters through our eyeballs, but rather what we infer about that room.
OUR BRAIN IN EVOLUTION
If you are an evolutionist, you may know that it took the universe 11 billion years to develop the brain into what it is today. The exciting news is that this development has by no means slowed down. On the contrary, our brains are currently evolving faster than ever before. In fact, because of the restrictiveness of our skulls, we can already see how the growing brain has starting to fold in on itself to accommodate more grey matter.
The neo cortex is the latest evolutionary achievement. This is arranged in columns and is where all our more complex functions occur. The holy grail of neuroscience is understanding the design of the neocortical column, which could inevitably help us better understand perception and reality.
Neuroscientists have systematically dissected the neo cortex over the past 15 years. Understanding how the neo cortex works largely involves understanding how our neurons are arranged and communicate with each other.
The biggest design secret of the human brain, according to Markram, is diversity. Not only is every neuron different, but their arrangement differs too in each and every human being. What we do all share is the same fabric and chemistry, which is how we can all perceive and understand the same reality. This is also believed to be species-specific, which might explain why we can’t communicate across species — more naturally at least.
To create a working model of the neo cortex of a rodent (consisting of 10 000 neurons), Markram and his team required an entire laptop to power a single neuron. A refrigerator-sized supercomputer was built (basically consisting of 10 000 laptops) and neuroscientists have began to gain the first glimpse of what happens in our brains when they receive a stimulus.