When the first mammals evolved from reptiles 200 million years ago, one of the biggest changes was inside their heads. Their brain cells were structured together into columns, an innovation that could be repeated like a computer chip to make larger and more powerful minds-- from mice to cats and dogs to humans. "This was the jump from reptiles to mammals," says Henry Markram, founder of the Brain/Mind Institute at the Ecole Polytechnique Fédérale in Lausanne, Switzerland. "It was like discovering a G5 processor or Pentium 4 and just copying it."
Now, Markram is announcing a collaboration with IBM to create a computer simulation of these fundamental neurological units, called neocortical columns. The process will involve building a Blue Gene supercomputer with 8,000 processors that can roar along at 23 trillion operations per second. Each processor will be used to simulate one or two neurons. If finished immediately, the machine would be one of the five fastest supercomputers in the world.
A neurocortical column is a structure half a millimeter in diameter and 2 millimeters long that contains about 60,000 neurons. (The human brain is made of 10 billion neurons.) The columns were discovered by Nobel Prize-winner Torsten Wiesel of Rockefeller University. They remain similar in different mammals, but the human brain is crammed with more of them. It was the need to fit in more columns that forced the human brain into its crinkly, wrinkled shape.
In Switzerland, Markram has put together a large lab dedicated to studying neurocortical columns in animals. His first effort with IBM will be to simulate a single rat neurocortical column. That alone is likely to take several years, as the computer model is rigorously checked in experiments against neurocortical columns taken from rats.
Once it is clear that one column has been simulated, the project will move on to simulating several such columns, again verifying its results by experiments with real brain tissues. Then, it will be possible to create larger simulations. After a decade or more, it may even be possible to create a model of the human brain. Markram and IBM both emphasize that the project would not create artificial intelligence but a way to study how neurons in the brain interact with one another.
"We believe that we will be able to capture the heart of the information process," says Markram. "Not just the column but how the information was formed in memories and retrieved."
The project could lead to new understandings of various diseases such as schizophrenia, autism and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder. Degenerative diseases such as Alzheimer's may turn out to be more difficult to model because they involve the failure of more than just brain cells, Markram says.
For IBM, the project represents one of several initiatives in its Blue Gene program, which involves building supercomputers based on a powerful new computer architecture. The most powerful of these units, at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, is 16 times more powerful than the one Markram is using and will be used to simulate the intricate ways that proteins fold--one of biology's big mysteries. Other efforts exist in astrophysics, atmospheric modeling and financial modeling.
IBM Aims To Simulate A Brain, by Matthew Herper, Forbes 06.06.05