(Online Course) Contemporary Issues for IAS Mains 2012: Sci & Tech Issues – Blue Brain Project : Modeling The Human Brain in The Lab

Science and Technological Issues

Blue Brain Project : Modeling The Human Brain in The Lab

Science has advanced in the Second Millennium in ways that we
now challenge ourselves into doing what we could not have earlier. We have
embarked on an experiment to determine the ultimate particle of which all
nuclei, atoms, molecules and materials are made anywhere on earth or in the vast
sky. We look for the “God particle”. We have sent man-made crafts to other
planets, and have made machines and tools that enquire whether life exists
elsewhere in the sky, and whether there are other planets similar to ours that
may supports life- “second earths”. We have read the “book of human life”, the
3.2 billion- letter-long code of DNA that makes us what we are.

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But the book of life tells us how our body works. DNA
determines the physiology and biochemistry. What about the brain? Can we ‘model’
the human brain in the laboratory? How do the trillions of cells in our brain
connect with one another so that it can do all that it does – pick up
information from the outside world, make sense out of it and act, learn things
and control our thoughts?

There are two ways to approach this grand challenge. One is
to try and understand the neurons (nerve cells) of “lower” organisms – worms,
flies, fish, rats and such, and build on this knowledge. This involves
experiments on the “normal” organism and on its “mutants” – its cousins who are
born (or tampered with in the lab) with one or more neural problem. Many
biologists are involved in such experiments, and several more directly study
humans with neurological problems and try to make sense out of the basis behind
such errors in the brain. This field is busy; every year as many as 60,000
papers are published in this area of neuroscience. But we need to learn from
them, bring the pieces together and make sense out of them. This approach is
incremental, building from what we have learnt and plan new experiments there
from. With advent of computers, another approach called in silico (since
computers use silica chips) has emerged. This exploits the fact that information
is collected and collated in the brain via connections between neurons; based on
the results of such neural interactions, the brain processes the information and
acts on it. So then, why not model this using the computer?

By the mid-1970s, information technology had advanced to such
a level that companies, notably IBM, had thought of modeling the “thought”
behind chess games that we humans play. The advanced computers programming that
they did at that time was christened “Deep Thought” (a term coined by
researchers at Carnegie Mellon University, including Dr. Thomas Anantharaman).
By the 1990s, IBM had put together a then gigantic computer system that was
named ‘BlueGene’ (blue being the nickname for IBM, and gene referring to the
kind of biologically realistic model of DNA-based and protein- based information
processing). One of the noteworthy programming done using the capabilities of
Blue Gene was to play chess. Real chess involves calculating the consequences of
moving pieces from place to place, each step determined by the possible
consequences of what the “opponent” does in response, with the ultimate aim of
winning. Having done this, Blue Gene challenged a human champion, Gary Kasparov,
to a series of chess games. (Comfortingly for us, the human won over the machine
then, but who knows what tomorrow has to offer).

It is these advances in computers that led Dr. Henry Mark ram
of Ecole Polytechnique Federal de Lausanne, Switzerland, to think of creating
supercomputer models of the brain that would be accurate to the last biological
details. To this end, he has put together what he calls the Blue Brain Project
(the blue here symbolizing supercomputers). The approach of Blue Brain is
binary. It uses the information available from the hundreds of thousands of
publications of neuroscientists on one hand, and ability of computer programmers
to create connectivities between the millions of “neurons” in silico on the
other. Combining the two, he expects to build a facility that would aim at data
integration and help build brain models.

What has been achieved so far? His group was able to
incorporate data collected from genetics, cell signalling pathways and
electrophysiology, and program them on a supercomputer. And by 2006, they were
able to simulate one of the neocortical columns of the brain of a rat. The neo
cortex is that part of the brain responsible for higher functions such as
thought and consciousness. The neo cortex of the rate consists of many columns,
each 2 mm tall and 0.5 mm thick and has 10,000 neurons, which are interconnected
through synapses (connecting junctions or ‘solders’). The number of such
synapses in one such rat column is 100 million. The task is thus
not trivial and Mark ram believes that by the next a few months, a cellular
circuit of 100 neocortical columns and a million cells will have been built.

And given enough money, it should be possible in about 10
years hence, to get the first to the first draft of a unified model of the human
brain. It will not be a complete model, but one that will account for what we
know. Believable Boast by the Builder of the Blue Brain! Hope the Bursaries Buy
it! (An interview of Dr Markram by Greg miller appears in the 11 November 2011
issue of Science ).

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