Billion pound brain project under way
The HBP can be viewed as the neuroscience equivalent of the Human Genome Project, which involved thousands of scientists around the world working together to sequence our entire genetic code. That took more than a decade and cost hundreds of billions of dollars. But whereas that involved mapping every one of the three billion base pairs found in every cell that make up our entire genetic code, the Human Brain Project will not be able to map the entire human brain. It's simply too complex.
The brain has around 100 billion neurons, or nerve cells and 100 trillion synaptic connections. Instead the project aims to build a variety of computer simulations.
Scientists at the University of Manchester are building a model which will mimic 1% of brain function. The SpiNNaker project is led by Steve Furber, a pioneer of the computer industry, who played a key role in the design of the BBC Microcomputer. "I've spent my career building conventional computers and I've seen their performance grow spectacularly. "Yet they still struggle to do things that humans find instinctive. Even very young babies can recognise their mothers but programming a computer to recognise a particular person is possible but very hard."
The scientists believe unlocking those secrets would yield major benefits in information technology, with the advent of so-called neuromorphic computers - machines which learn like the brain. "With this knowledge we could produce computer chips with specialised cognitive skills that mimic those of the human brain, such as the ability to analyse crowds, or decision-making on large and complex datasets," said Prof Markram. These digital brains should also allow researchers to compare healthy and diseased brains within computer models.
A key aim is to produce a more scientific understanding of the basis of brain diseases, building a unified map of neurological disorders and how they relate to each other. The HBP team believe that will help provide a more objective way to diagnose disease and treat brain disorders. The massive cost of the HBP has attracted some criticism that it may starve funding for other neuroscience research. The vast ambition of the project has also led some to doubt whether it really can deliver a revolution in our understanding of the brain within a decade.
But Prof Steve Furber believes it is the right time to make the attempt: "There are plenty of grounds for scepticism about whether the project will deliver a fairly complete understanding of how the brain works. But we will make progress even if we don't achieve that ultimate goal and that could yield major benefits for medicine, computing and for society."