Henry Markram wants €1 billion to model the entire human brain

Nature – Officially, the Swiss Academy of Sciences meeting in Bern on 20 January was an overview of large-scale computer modelling in neuroscience. Unofficially, it was neuroscientists’ first real chance to get answers about Markram’s controversial proposal for the Human Brain Project (HBP) — an effort to build a supercomputer simulation that integrates everything known about the human brain, from the structures of ion channels in neural cell membranes up to mechanisms behind conscious decision-making.

Markram, a South-African-born brain electrophysiologist who joined the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Lausanne (EPFL) a decade ago, may soon see his ambition fulfilled. The project is one of six finalists vying to win €1 billion (US$1.3 billion) as one of the European Union’s two new decade-long Flagship initiatives.

Markram’s insight wasn’t original: scientists have been devising mathematical models of neural activity since the early twentieth century, and using computers for the task since the 1950s. But his ambition was vast. Instead of modelling each neuron as, say, a point-like node in a larger neural network, he proposed to model them in all their multi-branching detail — down to their myriad ion channels (see ‘Building a brain’). And instead of modelling just the neural circuits involved in, say, the sense of smell, he wanted to model everything, “from the genetic level, the molecular level, the neurons and synapses, how microcircuits are formed, macrocircuits, mesocircuits, brain areas — until we get to understand how to link these levels, all the way up to behaviour and cognition”.

The computer power required to run such a grand unified theory of the brain would be roughly an exaflop, or 10^18 operations per second — hopeless in the 1990s. But Markram was undaunted: available computer power doubles roughly every 18 months, which meant that exascale computers could be available by the 2020s. And in the meantime, he argued, neuroscientists ought to be getting ready for them.

If the HBP (Human Brain Project) is selected, one of the key goals will be to make it highly collaborative and Internet-accessible, open to researchers from around the world, says Markram, adding that the project consortium already comprises some 150 principal investigators and 70 institutions in 22 countries. “It will be lots of Einsteins coming together to build a brain,” he says, each bringing his or her own ideas and expertise.

Markram seems to be building support. Last year, the board that oversees both the ETH and the EPFL enthusiastically endorsed the Blue Brain Project after a rigorous review by a four-member panel that included two outspoken sceptics of Markram’s approach. The board asked the Swiss parliament to commit 75 million Swiss francs (US$81 million) to the project for 2013–16 — more than ten times Blue Brain’s current budget. Parliament’s decision is expected next month.

Markram is optimistic that the European Union will come to much the same conclusion about the HBP. However, if the project isn’t endorsed, says Markram, “we’ll just continue with Blue Brain” — although it may take a lot longer to reach a full brain simulation.

Markram clearly feels that history is on his side. “Simulation-based research is an inevitability,” he declared in Bern. “If I get stopped from doing this, it’s going to happen. It has happened already in many areas of science. And it is going to happen in life science.”

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