Alzheimer’s to meet its match in brain map project, researcher claims

Artificial brain models will let scientists understand the brain and cure its diseases, says Prof. Henry Markram

Dr. John Donoghue (L.) accepts a $1 million award from former president Shimon Peres at the BrainTech event in Tel Aviv, October 15, 2013. The award was presented to  Donoghue and his team for their work in using brain tech to treat degenerative brain diseases (Photo credit: Chen Galili)
Dr. John Donoghue (L.) accepts a $1 million award from former president Shimon Peres at the BrainTech event in Tel Aviv, October 15, 2013. The award was presented to Donoghue and his team for their work in using brain tech to treat degenerative brain diseases (Photo credit: Chen Galili)

In just a few years, scientists will be able to simulate brain activity, develop computers that think like people do, map diseases of the brain with an eye to curing them, build robots that will sense what needs to be done – and develop a “theory of everything,” providing a framework for understanding learning, memory, attention, and goal-oriented behavior.

The HBP will, for the first time, provide real insight into how the brain works, enabling scientists, engineers, programmers, and others to interface with it and develop programs, products, and procedures that will make life better and easier,  according to Professor Henry Markram, co-director of the Human Brain Project.

“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 the Weizmann Institute, is director of Brain and Mind Institute of the École Polytechnique in Lausanne, Switzerland, which is coordinating the HBP among its 135 partners in 21 countries. As part of the broader project, hundreds of researchers are working on esoteric applications of brain research, like neurorobotics (providing robots with “pre-validated brain models” that let robots function independently in specific tasks), neuromorphic computing (simulating human neurons on computer chips), brain simulations (that will be accessible to researchers over the Internet), and much more.

All this brain tech, and much more, will be on display next month in Tel Aviv at the second BrainTech conference, said Miri Polachek, IBT’s director.

“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.

Among the speakers at the conference will be Markram himself, who will describe the latest developments in the HBP, and in brain research in general.

The HBP is actually building two brain models, said Markram, a mouse brain, which should be completed by next year, and a human brain, on which work will continue for at least five years. The mouse brain, with its less complicated neuron activity, will give scientists insight into working with the far more complicated human brain, which has tens of billions of neurons.

Henry Markram (Photo credit: Courtesy)
Henry Markram (Photo credit: Courtesy)

With that, he stresses, the HBP is not about building artificial brains.

“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.”

The ability to do that, said Markram, will be one of the greatest benefits 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.”

True science, said Markram, requires an environment that scientists can use to duplicate real-world situations and record the results of changes. That will only be possible when scientists have models of the brain that they can understand and manipulate – and that is what the HBP will do for medical science, said Markram. “It’s as if we are building 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.”

Implementing a scientific method for brain research will be an important theme at BrainTech. Among the features of the event will be the Brain Challenge, in which teams will compete to tackle major brain-related issues through a multidisciplinary, collaborative approach. The Challenge, sponsored by IBT and US-based Allen Brain Institute, will task teams with developing a unique proposal for designing a new translational approach to a major global challenge in human brain disorders. Suggested target areas include autism, dementia, and similar conditions.

Winners of the Challenge could intern at the Allen Institute in Seattle, where they will work with one of the top brain research teams in the world. If the idea is really promising, IBT will connect the team winners with Israeli investors who may be interested in further developing the proposal, said Polachek.

“Israel’s brain-tech ecosystem is ripe for international collaboration and we anticipate groundbreaking innovation to come out of this Challenge, potentially helping millions around the world,” she added.

The benefits of brain research will not be limited to health applications, said Markram; brain tech will be used to make machines, computers, robots, and other devices smarter, even able to solve problems on their own.

“The human brain performs computations inaccessible to the most powerful of today’s computers – all while consuming no more power than a light bulb,” he said. “Understanding how it does this – the way it computes reliably with unreliable elements, the way the different elements of the brain communicate – can provide the key not only to a completely new category of hardware but to a paradigm shift for computing as a whole. The economic and industrial impact is potentially enormous.”

For many people, the prospect of science having so much understanding of the brain is a bit frightening; who’s to say a mad scientist, or (perhaps more likely) a mad dictator won’t use this technology in a negative manner?

“It’s for that reason we have made a great effort to include ethicists, philosophers, and religious leaders to be a part of the project,” said Markram. “We have been looking at all the abuse scenarios and are structuring the research to ensure that these issues do not mar the important work being done here.”

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