beanz Magazine

The Blue Brain Project

Markus Lippman on Flickr

Could a human brain be simulated by a computer? Would it think and feel like we do?

In the digital world, developers can tweak and tinker and take their time to find the perfect design. After all, if your virtual rocket blows up you can just click a button and make a new one! Cheap, quick, and easy. But computer simulations are also limited: they only work if their model is accurate. If the developer doesn’t program physics correctly, or forgets a piece of the puzzle, then it’s game over.

In 2005, when Professor Henry Markram started the Blue Brain Project (BBP), many scientists didn’t think it would work. The goal of the BBP was to create a detailed computer simulation of a mouse brain, down to every last neuron and synapse. It was an exciting idea. Neuroscience is a tricky field, since the object it studies — the brain — is hidden away inside our skulls. Even the most modern measuring technologies like EEGs and MRIs only provide brief glimpses into what’s going on. Imagine seeing a shadow and trying to figure out what it’s owner looks like!

As a result, creating new medicines and treating brain diseases is a game of trial and error. An accurate brain simulation could change that. But could that simulation ever be accurate?

Background Info

Your brain is composed of neurons. Each neuron looks a bit like a tree, with roots and branches extending in many directions and connecting to dozens of other neurons. Together, they create a vast network — 85 billion neurons altogether! But while scientists understand the basics of neurons, they don’t know many specifics. For example, the shape of a neuron helps store your memories, but how exactly does this shape change when you eat an ice cream? When you pet a kitty? How does your brain decide which neuron to change?

 

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