Rat Brain Simulation Taken To New Level

Out of the Blue

In the basement of a university in Lausanne, Switzerland sit four black boxes, each about the size of a refrigerator, and filled with 2,000 IBM microchips stacked in repeating rows. Together they form the processing core of a machine that can handle 22.8 trillion operations per second. It contains no moving parts and is eerily silent. When the computer is turned on, the only thing you can hear is the continuous sigh of the massive air conditioner. This is Blue Brain.

The name of the supercomputer is literal: Each of its microchips has been programmed to act just like a real neuron in a real brain. The behavior of the computer replicates, with shocking precision, the cellular events unfolding inside a mind. “This is the first model of the brain that has been built from the bottom-up,” says Henry Markram, a neuroscientist at Ecole Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne (EPFL) and the director of the Blue Brain project. “There are lots of models out there, but this is the only one that is totally biologically accurate. We began with the most basic facts about the brain and just worked from there.”

The Blue Brain project is now at a crucial juncture. The first phase of the project—”the feasibility phase”—is coming to a close. The skeptics, for the most part, have been proven wrong. It took less than two years for the Blue Brain supercomputer to accurately simulate a neocortical column, which is a tiny slice of brain containing approximately 10,000 neurons, with about 30 million synaptic connections between them. “The column has been built and it runs,” Markram says. “Now we just have to scale it up.” Blue Brain scientists are confident that, at some point in the next few years, they will be able to start simulating an entire brain. “If we build this brain right, it will do everything,” Markram says. I ask him if that includes selfconsciousness: Is it really possible to put a ghost into a machine? “When I say everything, I mean everything,” he says, and a mischievous smile spreads across his face.

When listening to Markram speculate, it’s easy to forget that the Blue Brain simulation is still just a single circuit, confined within a silent supercomputer. The machine is not yet alive. And yet Markram can be persuasive when he talks about his future plans. His ambitions are grounded in concrete steps. Once the team is able to model a complete rat brain—that should happen in the next two years—Markram will download the simulation into a robotic rat, so that the brain has a body. He’s already talking to a Japanese company about constructing the mechanical animal. “The only way to really know what the model is capable of is to give it legs,” he says. “If the robotic rat just bumps into walls, then we’ve got a problem.”

See a presentation of Markrams work here.

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