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Replicated Brain Closer To Thought

April 23, 2009

A replication of a small portion of the brain has been developed, based on careful construction of each molecule, and has successfully restored experimental results from actual brains, BBC News reported.

By placing the so-called “Blue Brain” in a virtual body, signs of molecular and neural origins of thought and memory can be observed.

The director leading the study stated that scaling the recreation of the human brain is simply a matter of money.  “It’s not a question of years, it’s one of dollars. The psychology is there today and the technology is there today. It’s a matter of if society wants this. If they want it in 10 years, they’ll have it in 10 years. If they want it in 1000 years, we can wait.”

The Blue Brain venture was unveiled at the European Future Technologies meeting in Prague in 2005. Of all brain recreation efforts ever undertaken, this is considered the most ambitious yet. 

The Blue Brain project is unique in that it was designed to reverse-engineer mammal brains from actual laboratory information and to establish a computer model down to the level of the molecules that make them up.  Many other computer simulation efforts, however, have tried to code in “brain-like” computation or to imitate portions of the nervous systems and brains of various different animals, but none have accomplished the unique features of the Blue Brain project.

In the first part of the venture, researchers completed a model of the neocortical column, which supports higher brain function and thought. 

Director of the Blue Brain project, Henry Markram, commented, “The thing about the neocortical column is that you can think of it as an isolated processor. It is very much the same from mouse to man – it gets a bit larger a bit wider in humans, but the circuit diagram is very similar.”  Markram also founded the Brain Mind Institute of Switzerland. 

When evolution discovered this “mammalian secret,” it reproduced numerous times and then “used it as it needed more and more functionality,” he commented further.

At the Science Beyond Fiction conference, Professor Markram informed attendees that the column is being developed into a virtual reality agent, or in other words, a simulated animal in a simulated environment for the purpose of enabling researchers to monitor the specific activities in the column as the animal moves about the space.

“It starts to learn things and starts to remember things. We can actually see when it retrieves a memory, and where they retrieved it from because we can trace back every activity of every molecule, every cell, every connection and see how the memory was formed.”

In the second phase of the project, an improved version of the IBM Blue Gene supercomputer is utilized.  Use of this supercomputer was common in the research to date. “The next phase is beginning with a ‘molecularization’ process: we add in all the molecules and biochemical pathways to move toward gene expression and gene networks. We couldn’t do that on our first supercomputer.”

Professor Markram expects in a period of 10 to 20 years the project will incorporate many components of medicine, including the genomic profile, and eventually establishing a wide-range database for “personalized medicine.” 

This approach would enable researchers to imitate how an individual might react to a specific drug or treatment.

The goal of the conference is to encourage high-risk, multidisciplinary research in information and communication technologies (ICT).  Thus, researchers of wide ranging backgrounds from computer scientists to biologists flock to the meeting.  Naturally, a collaboration of this many brilliant minds warrants much disagreement.  Some of the researchers believe the superior goals of the Blue Brain project are unachievable. 

Wolfgang Wahlster of the German Research Center for Artificial Intelligence, and a chief German government scientific adviser on ICT, believes that they reductionist tactic of the endeavor is flawed.

“Imagine you could follow in one of the most advanced Pentium chips today what each and every transistor is doing right now,” he said in a statement.

“Then I ask, ‘What is happening? Is Word running? Are you doing a Google search?’ You couldn’t answer. Looking at this level you cannot figure it out.

“This is very interesting research and I’m not criticizing it, but it doesn’t help us in computer science in having the intelligent behavior of humans replicated.”

By building up from one neocortical column to the entire neocortex, Professor Markram asserts, the ethereal “emergent properties” that depict human thought will slowly make themselves noticeable.

“They are not things that are easily predicted by just knowing elements – by definition – but by putting them together you can explore the principles, where they came from. Basically that’s what we’re after: understanding the principles of emergent properties.”

The very core of being human is based on the spatial awareness of lower mammal graduate to political positions and artistic expression in humans, which is all derivative of these emergent properties. 

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