Exploring the Next Frontier – The Human Brain Project

Human exploration has long been concerned with travelling outward as far as possible — the edge of the continent, around the world, outside the solar system. But a new frontier is about to explored in a big way: the human brain.

Not too long ago, I posted about the K computer simulating 1% of the human brain and how that was a really big deal. That still stands as the closest we’ve come to simulating the human brain in any way, but the European Commission’s Human Brain Project aims to go a lot further: they want to create “a unified picture of the brain as a single multi-level system.”

Exactly what this means isn’t exactly clear, but what is clear is that it’s going to result in some monumental advances in neural computing and brain simulation. They don’t say anywhere that they’re trying to simulate the entire human brain, but I’ve heard it said that this might be among their goals. And because this is a ten-year project, they might actually have a shot at doing it (or getting significantly closer than we’ve ever done before).

The project is focused on six distinct areas: neuroinformatics, brain simulation, high-performance computing, medical informatics, neuromorphic computing, and neurorobotics. I think it’s fair to say that we’ll be seeing some serious innovation from this group. Although the entire project is ambitious and exciting, the part of it that will likely be of most interest to neuroscientists is sub-project SP6, brain simulation.

In this sub-project, researchers will be striving to create an internet-based, collaborative system that will simulate the brain at a number of levels, from abstract computational models all the way down to molecular-level models. And these models will grow in complexity — and increase in neuroanatomical accuracy — as more research is released in the fields of computational neuroscience, machine learning, and neuroanatomy and these findings are integrated into the system. Obviously, this will be a hugely valuable tool to neuroscientists around the world.

One of the interesting strategies that HBP will be using to create more detailed and accurate models of the brain is analyzing the brains of mice and developing methods to extrapolate this information to further our understanding of the human brain. Data will be collected on the numbers and configuration of neurons, the vasculature of the brain, principles of brain mechanics, and synaptic maps. Once this data has been collected, the scientists at HBP will develop models that allow the data gathered from the mouse brain data to inform the understanding of the human brain.

On the computational side, HBP will be building a neuromorphic computing platform that will be accessible from around the world. Although the HBP website is quite difficult to understand (as it’s written in grant proposal language), this platform seems to be a highly accessible place for running large-scale simulations that aren’t as brain-focused as the brain simulations mentioned a couple paragraphs ago. I’m hoping that this is a hugely powerful neural network creation and training device that will help the machine learning and big data fields build more comprehensive and accurate models.

No matter what area of neuroscience you’re interested in, the Human Brain Project is very exciting. From mapping the brain’s axonal connections to simulating its structure to using neural network technology for informatics, it’s going to be a highly innovative project that could shake up a number of fields of research within the next decade. Which part of the HBP are you looking forward to most?

Learn more about the Human Brain Project here.

Image via solarsevens / Shutterstock.

Daniel Albright, MA, PhD (c)

Daniel Albright, MA, is a PhD student at the University of Reading, studying the lateralization of linguistically mediated event perception. He received his masters in linguistics from the University of Colorado-Boulder. Get in touch with him at www.dannalbright.com or on Twitter at @dann_albright.
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