April 25 - Scientists have begun working to recreate a human brain inside a supercomputer, one of the most ambitious scientific projects ever undertaken. The Human Brain Project, led by Swiss institute, the EPFL, aims to build the replica organ within ten years. Jim Drury reports.
STORY: The brain is the most complex and mysterious organ in the human body, an intricate system of cells and pathways that produces thoughts and turns them into actions. But while scientists know WHAT the brain does, they know very little about HOW it functions. So they're hoping that a new, multinational effort called the Human Brain Project, will cast new light on the human brain by creating a simulated brain replica. The ten year project aims to collect vast swathes of scientific data from around the world to create a neuromorphic supercomputer that mimics the organ. Neurobiologist Martin Telefont from Switzerland's EPFL Institute, is in charge of integrating the information. SOUNDBITE (English) MARTIN TELEFONT, NEUROBIOLOGIST WORKING ON HUMAN BRAIN PROJECT, SAYING: "Each individual cell in a way is like a tree or like a bush in a forest and what we're doing is when we're building up a model, we're taking all these individual trees and bushes and we put them back together, back together in the forest that a biologist would see on a day-to-day basis in a laboratory." The project is being run by Professor Henry Markham, also from EPFL. He says the first stage may involve programming a robot to trace the chain of neural events, from molecular stimulation to cognition. Then, by collecting data from hospitals, new classifications of brain disease could be made, to better target specific drugs to suitable individuals. SOUNDBITE (English) HENRY MARKRAM, DIRECTOR OF THE HUMAN BRAIN PROJECT AT EPFL, SAYING: "There could be dozens of drugs today that could actually be helping specific patients. In Alzheimer's it might say 'Look, you know, there's two Alzheimer's patients; this one's going to work for you because you have a certain genetic set of sequences that are indicative that they are going to work for you (but) it's not going to work for you. This other drug will work for you, so this potential without having to go through this whole adventure of developing a drug, we could actually be sitting with solutions today." The final stage is arguably the most ambitious - building neuromorphic computers containing processors to mimic the brain. SOUNDBITE (English) HENRY MARKRAM, DIRECTOR OF THE HUMAN BRAIN PROJECT AT EPFL, SAYING: "In the future you can imagine having hybrid systems, where you have these exact numerical solutions that you get from digital processes and then you get these more inexact, probabilistic solutions, more brain-like cognitive type of processing that you get from neuromorphic computer processes." The Human Brain Project was recently awarded a billion euros by the European Union, with each tranche of the award dependent on the progress made. Markham has developed an algorithm to work out rules for how to reconstruct the brain. So far they've built brain circuits modelled on a partial rat brain comprising around one million neurons. They say the human brain recreation is due for completion by 2023, giving researchers medical insights that today, they can only imagine.