Reductionist biology—examining individual brain parts, neural circuits and molecules—has brought us a long way, but it alone cannot explain the workings of the human brain, an information processor within our skull that is perhaps unparalleled anywhere in the universe. We must construct as well as reduce and build as well as dissect. To do that, we need a new paradigm that combines both analysis and synthesis. The father of reductionism, French philosopher René Descartes, wrote about the need to investigate the parts and then reassemble them to re-create the whole.
Putting things together to devise a complete simulation of the human brain is the goal of an undertaking that intends to construct a fantastic new scientific instrument. Nothing quite like it exists yet, but we have begun building it. One way to think of this instrument is as the most powerful flight simulator ever built—only rather than simulating flight through open air, it will simulate a voyage through the brain. This “virtual brain” will run on supercomputers and incorporate all the data that neuroscience has generated to date.
Henry Markram is the director of the Blue Brain Project. The project is a candidate for a Future and Emerging Technologies (FET) research grant from the European Commission. The grant would bring in €1 billion over 10 years. The final decision on the grant is expected in February 2013. If the grant is awarded, the project will be renamed the Human Brain Project.
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