Blue Brain Project: Rebuilding The Brain To Understand It Better

IBM is behind the digital reconstruction of the human brain … that can change the world.

The  human brain has been described as the most complex system in existence, but that does not prevent neuroscientists and engineers from dreaming of fully understanding how it works. In fact, some of them have even proposed to create a digital reproduction of the human brain to be able to carry out research with it that would be impossible to carry out from observation and experimentation with a real functioning nervous system.

This is precisely the objective of the Blue Brain Project, an incredibly ambitious initiative that was launched in 2005, promoted by IBM and a Swiss university (École Polytecnique Fédérale de Lausanne, or EPFL ).

What has been done so far at IBM

For more than ten years, the Blue Brain Project has been building a computer model that contains information about the structure and functioning of a small part of the brain of a rat. This digital reconstruction, which today corresponds to little more than a third of a cubic millimeter of tissue, aims to faithfully reproduce the way in which nerve cells connect and activate each other, and even the way they that these activation patterns cause the brain to change physically over time due to brain plasticity.

In addition to covering many other areas of the brain, the Blue Brain Project has to make the qualitative leap that involves going from digitally reconstructing the brain of a rat to doing the same with the human brain, which is much larger and more complex.

What could this digital brain do?

Ultimately, the goal of the Blue Brain Project is to create a computer model that can predict to some degree how an area of ​​neural tissue will be activated if it is stimulated in a certain way. In other words, the aim is to create a tool that allows hypotheses to be tested and attempts to repeat all kinds of experiments carried out with real brains multiple times to see if the results obtained are solid and not the result of chance.

The potential of this project could be enormous, according to its promoters, since the existence of a digital reconstruction of large extensions of neurons would allow obtaining a “test dummy” in which to experiment with all kinds of different situations and variables that would affect the way in which the nerve cells of a human brain are activated.

With this model, one could, for example, study how all kinds of cognitive processes work, such as our way of evoking memories or imagining action plans, and it could also be possible to predict what type of symptoms would cause an injury in certain areas of the brain. cerebral cortex. But, in addition, it could serve to solve one of the great mysteries of the human brain: how consciousness arises, the subjective experience of what we live.

Studying consciousness

The idea that consciousness arises from the coordinated work of large networks of neurons distributed throughout the brain, instead of depending on a well-defined structure hidden by some part of the central nervous system, is in very good health. This makes many neuroscientists believe that to understand what is the nature of consciousness, the important thing is to look at the synchronized activation patterns of many thousands of neurons at the same time, and not so much to study anatomical structures of the brain separately.

The Blue Brain Project would precisely allow us to observe and intervene in real time on the activation patterns of many neural networks, something that can only be done in a very limited way with real brains, and see, for example, what changes are produced when someone goes from being awake to sleeping without actually dreaming, and what happens when consciousness returns in the form of dreams during REM.

The drawbacks of the Blue Brain Project

It is estimated that a human brain contains about 100 billion neurons. To this we have to add that the functioning of the nervous system is explained more by how neurons interact with each other than by their quantity, which can vary greatly without affecting the overall functioning of the brain, and therefore what is relevant are the thousands of synaptic connections that each neuron can establish with the others. In each synaptic connection between two neurons, in addition, there are millions of neurotransmitters that are released continuously. This means that faithfully recreating a human brain is an impossible task, no matter how many years this endeavor is devoted to.

The creators of the Blue Brain Project have to make up for these deficiencies by simplifying the functioning of their digital brain. What they do, fundamentally, is to study the functioning of a small part of the brain of various rats (information collected over twenty years) and “condense” this information to develop an algorithm made to predict the activation patterns of these nerve cells. Once this was done with a group of 1,000 neurons, the researchers used this algorithm again to recreate 31,000 neurons by firing in the same way.

The fact that the construction of this provisional model has been simplified so much and that the same will be done with the human brain to be recreated has led to many voices being raised against this expensive and slow-developing project. Some neuroscientists believe that the idea of ​​recreating a brain digitally is absurd, since the nervous system does not work with a binary language or with a predefined programming language. Others simply say that the costs are too high for the performance that can be obtained from the project. Time will tell if the Blue Brain Project initiative yields the results that were expected of it.

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