The Human Brain Project (HBP) highlighted its incredible advances in brain research at a recent Tel Aviv conference last month, The Times of Israel reported, with the purpose of joining together with Israeli researchers to continue its groundbreaking activities.
Within just a few years, researchers will be able to simulate brain activity, map the brain for the purpose of curing diseases, build computers that mimic the human brain and more.
Professor Henry Markram, director of the HBP, explained that the project will be able to provide real insight into the workings of the human brain for the first time.
“In my opinion, the HBP will go down as a turning point,” said Markram. “The project will bring about changes at almost every level of society, and for the better, helping to develop new therapies for dementia-related conditions such as Alzheimer’s, and much more.”
Markram, formerly of Israel’s Weizmann Institute, serves as director of Brain and Mind Institute of the École Polytechnique in Lausanne, Switzerland, coordinating the 135 partners of the project across 21 countries.
Hundreds of researchers are developing varied applications under the project, such as neurorobotics, which will allow robots to function independently, neuromorphic computing, which translates human neurons to computer chips, brain simulations which will be available to researchers online, and more.
Miri Polachek is director of Israel Brain Technologies, host of the second BrainTech conference which highlighted the HBP coming to Israel.
“Israel, unlike some of the other countries participating in the HBP, does not have a government-sponsored brain research agency yet, so we are the principal group coordinating brain research activities here. Israeli researchers are involved in some very deep stuff, some of which we will be discussing at the conference,” she said.
The HBP is working on two brain models, one of a mouse brain and one of a human brain. The mouse model should be ready by next year, but the human model will take at least five more years to complete. The simpler structure of the mouse brain will help provide insights into the complex neuron activity of the human brain.
Markram explains the urgency of the HBP’s mission. “It’s more about understanding the design of the brain,” said Markram. “We are developing a systematic approach where we can learn about how the different components of the brain, as well as the brain and the body, and the brain and the environment, all interact. It is an essentially systematic approach to understanding the brain and building platforms and interfaces that will enable scientists to conduct research on a wide array of applications and uses.
“In order to understand the brain we need to see how neurons work, independently and together with each other, what their plasticity is (a term that refers to changes in neural pathways and synapses), and other factors,” said Markram. “This will allow us to run simulations and analyses, and enable scientists to see, for example, what the signature of a brain disease is, and to develop ways to treat it based on what they see in their tests.”
This is the key purpose of the HBP. “Right now we use what I call a ‘black box’ method to treat brain diseases like ALS, Alzheimer’s, and Parkinson’s,” said Markram. “We do correlations – giving a patient drugs and seeing whether or how effective they are. This is not a scientific way to do things.” Rather, scientists must be able to duplicate the conditions of the real world and manipulate them to study the impact of the changes.
Says Markram, the HBP model will function like “a microscope for the brain. Just like the microscope revealed the inner workings of cells and bacteria, so will the HBP open up the inner workings of the brain.”