An ambitious project to create an accurate computer model of the brain has reached an impressive milestone. Scientists in Switzerland working with IBM researchers, part of the Blue Brain Project, have shown that their computer simulation of the neocortical column, arguably the most complex part of a mammal's brain, appears to behave like its biological counterpart. By demonstrating that their simulation is realistic, the researchers say, these results suggest that an entire mammal brain could be completely modeled within three years, and a human brain within the next decade. Also, by mimicking the behavior of the brain down to the individual neuron, the researchers aim to create a modeling tool that can be used by neuroscientists to run experiments, test hypotheses, and analyze the effects of drugs more efficiently than they could using real brain tissue.
This representation shows the connectivity of the 10,000 neurons and 30 million connections that make up a single mammalian neocortical column, the basic building block of the cortex. The different colors correspond to different levels of electrical activity. The project began with the initial goal of modeling the complexity of this part of a rat's brain using a supercomputer. The neocortical column was chosen as a starting point because it is widely recognized as being particularly complex, with a heterogeneous structure consisting of many different types of synapse and ion channels. As the project lead, Henry Markram, points out: "There's no point in dreaming about modeling the brain if you can't model a small part of it".
The model itself is based on 15 years' worth of experimental data on neuronal morphology, gene expression, ion channels, synaptic connectivity, and electrophysiological recordings of the neocortical columns of rats. Software tools were then developed to process this information and automatically reconstruct physiologically accurate 3-D models of neurons and their interconnections. Having created a biologically accurate computer model of a neocortical column scientists are now planning to model the entire human brain within just 10 years.