We’ve all heard of the Human Genome Project, seen the stringy chromosomes and animated nucleotides on the front pages of TIME and Newsweek. But most of the human genome hype died down over a decade ago, and with the buzz surrounding the Large Hadron Collider, biologists are feeling a wee bit left out of the headlines. They’ve been banging their heads against the laboratory door and have come up with something big, something collaborative, something that could change your mind—something called the Human Brain Project.
It is estimated that over one billion people suffer from neurological illness. But despite increased awareness and decreased social stigma around neurological disease and mental illness, effective treatment options are often lacking. They can involve anything from basic lifestyle changes to going under the knife to electric shock therapy. But by far the most popular treatment is to medicate, medicate, medicate.
Each year, pharmaceutical companies spend billions of dollars on drug development for neurological disorders. The time and energy required to go from an initial “drug blueprint” to worldwide distribution can be immense. One of the most time-consuming steps in the process is testing and understanding the effects of a drug. Many other disciplines use model systems to test cause-and-effect relationships, so why don’t neurologists just pump drug prototypes into a mockup of the human brain? The answer: one doesn’t exist. Yet.
The “lab rat” of the human brain project — literally
In 2005, the Swiss Brain and Mind Institute (SBMI) began creating a complete model of the mammalian brain using lab rats. Dubbed the Blue Brain Project, they’ve made impressive headway: in 2006 they produced a man-made cortical column of 10,000 neurons—a brainy start, to say the least!
Although a rat brain is no substitute for a human brain, it has taught us a bunch about how mammalian brains work and how to get brain projects up and rolling. Unfortunately, scientists can’t run drug simulations on the rat brain model. This may seem surprising given that the rat and human genomes are very similar, but small genetic changes can have major impacts in drug response.
The Real Deal: The Human Brain Project
More recently, scientists have tried to model our own noggins. In the beginning of 2014, over 300 researchers assembled in Lausanne, Switzerland, and put their heads together and came up with a plan to map the entire human brain. This model is entirely computer-based, made up of a network of computers and servers that will be accessible online by researchers from around the world. Using everything from traditional MRI imaging and cadaver autopsies to more advanced computing and predictive modeling, the team hopes to have a complete working model of the human brain within two decades. Keep in mind that the Human Genome Project was forecasted to take half a century, but was completed in less than twenty-five years.
The project has, however, been running low on energy—it takes about 20 gigawatts of power to run the necessary equipment (about ten times the amount of energy needed to power New York City). To deal with these energy demands, the team is collaborating with IBM and Intel to create the first exascale computing machines, which should be ready by 2020—the estimated start-date of digital analysis. Additionally, cutting edge storage technologies are being examined, such as saving project data in the form of DNA—using the As, Ts, Gs, and Cs in the place of the binary “0s and 1s”. This effectively increases the “alphabet” of data, resulting in more stable and compact storage options. If anything, the Human Brain Project is stirring up interest in these emerging technologies.
What does this mean for us?
It’s still not known whether a human brain model will be accurate or sophisticated enough for drug testing. But there’s little doubt that the model will help in the primary treatment of neurological and psychological illnesses and speed up and reduce the cost of drug discovery. The model will allow researchers to find “biological signatures” — little quirks about neuron firing patterns — which will provide clues to the causes of many diseases. From there it’s only a matter of creating a drug that helps revert damaged areas, boost healthy brain activity, or a mix of the two.
What’s more, the creation of a simulated human brain could be transcribed and used as the foundation for the next generation of artificial intelligence. These so-called neuromorphic systems, although purely theoretical at present, are thought to be more efficient and intuitive than traditional artificial intelligence. Terminator-style self-awareness aside, the potential of using this technology for robots or back-end chips is enormous.
The Human Brain Project isn’t limited to medicine and science. Its completion could also result in an expansion of knowledge in the field of ethics. It might provide unprecedented insights into emotion, thought, personality, and memory. In fact, completion of the project could challenge our personal perceptions of freewill and identity.
Of course, there is strong possibility that this whole project will fail, becoming one big brain fart. The team could easily run into difficulties with funding or processing power, but that’s always a risk when doing “Big Science”. However, if the Human Brain Project does pull through, the findings will likely give us all something to think about.