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The brain race: can giant computers map the mind?

In the past month, we have seen two major announcements of huge projects to map the brain – the European Human Brain Project (HBP) and the Obama Brain Activity Map (BAM). What you may not have noticed…

The race to map the human brain may be more political than scientific. brewbooks

In the past month, we have seen two major announcements of huge projects to map the brain – the European Human Brain Project (HBP) and the Obama Brain Activity Map (BAM).

What you may not have noticed is a third, much more promising project announced by the Seattle-based Allen Institute for Brain Science to do similar things – but more on this later on.

Of the first two, the European HBP will give €1 billion to the Lausanne-based research group headed by Henry Markram. Markram is a brilliant salesman whose ambitious plan to make a working computer model of the cerebral cortex (“the Blue Brain Project”) has been strongly supported by IBM since about 2005.

The fact the Blue Brain project has not produced any significant breakthroughs in recent years does not seem to have worried the European funding agencies. Apparently they like the idea of Markram building a monster computer to lead Europe into the future of brain research.


The US plan is just as ambitious, but its aims seem to be more commercial and political than scientific. Obama hopes that companies such as Google and Microsoft will combine with universities and drug companies to lead the way to curing diseases such as Alzheimer’s.

No start-up funds have so far been allocated, but the plan clearly centres on the building of a massive computer network to simulate brain activity.

Obama sees the project as putting the US first in what he calls the “brain race” – just as Kennedy drove the space race competition with the Russians. Of course, this kind of announcement makes great political sense, but in my opinion it may be another case of the Emperor’s New Clothes.

Baby steps for the brain

The harsh truth is that brain research is still in its infancy, and big computers cannot replace our fundamental lack of understanding of how brains work.

I have watched the Markram project over the past five years and have been underwhelmed by the insights it has generated. For a start, Markram’s work focuses on a model of a tiny piece of rat cerebral cortex, which ignores the fact that the most important parts of the brain, in terms of survival, are outside the cerebral cortex.


We know that subcortical structures such as the hypothalamus can manage eating, drinking, reproduction, nurturing of offspring and defence all by themselves, but we are not even close to understanding the complex networks that make these basic systems work.

It is true the cerebral cortex of humans is awesomely powerful, but if we cannot even understand the basic survival functions of the brain, I think it’s a very long shot to predict that we can make an electronic cerebral cortex with a big computer.


While my own concerns over these two big projects are based in scepticism, others are worried about something much more sinister. Radical commentator Jon Rappoport sees the US project as a veiled attempt to create a kind of Orwellian Nineteen Eighty-Four society, with government control of an individual’s brain function.

Rappoport’s views are extreme but recent history shows the US public can easily be seduced into plans such as these.


Examples include the crazy mind-control ideas of Spanish physiology professor Jose Delgado at Yale in the 1970s (“a program of psychosurgery and political control of our society”), Nixon’s thwarted plans to carry out psychosurgery on aggressive individuals (mainly African American prisoners), and George Bush’s failed attempt to force early intervention on children to detect mental disorders (the Teen Screen project).

Rappoport observes that DARPA (Defense Advanced Research Project Agency) will be a major player in BAM, and to him this suggests an opportunity for some new-millennium Dr Strangelove to be let loose on the American public.

Heady possibilities

I’m less concerned about these dark possibilities, because I think the political hype in HBP and BAM is hundreds of miles ahead of the scientific realities of brain research. But that’s not to say we should not be excited about ambitious projects.

Aidan O'Sullivan

I mentioned above that the Allen Institute for Brain Science (formed by Bill Gates’ Microsoft partner Paul Allen in 2003) is also entering the fray. The difference between the Allen Institute proposal and the HBP and BAM projects is that it is much more realistic, and comes from an institute with an outstanding, perhaps unmatched, track record in brain research.

Over the past decade, the Allen Institute has mapped all 26,000 genes in the mouse brain, and has mapped the major genes in the embryonic brain.

Among other projects, they are in the midst of mapping all the genes in the human brain, and creating a library of brain wiring experiments.

All of this is open to any researcher in the world at no cost – you just need an internet connection.

Paul Allen has announced he is putting around US$300 million into a new 10-year project to map every aspect of the visual cortex in the mouse. Not nearly as ambitious as HBP or BAM, but to me it looks achievable.

If I was investing, I would put my money on the Allen Institute.

Join the conversation

11 Comments sorted by

  1. Melissa Cochrane

    logged in via email

    I'd like to comment on just a few of your statements:

    1) "The fact the Blue Brain project has not produced any significant breakthroughs in recent years does not seem to have worried the European funding agencies." - This seems to be an opinion based not entirely on fact but on preconceived notions of what the Blue Brain has or has not achieved and secondly on an incorrect notion of what the Human Brain Project is. Firstly, the Blue Brain Project is not the Human Brain Project. The Blue Brain…

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    1. Yoron Hamber


      In reply to Melissa Cochrane

      He's still correct in his article. I too would put my dough into the 'Allen idea', mapping the brain up. Don't really know how they do it though, but it sounds feasible if you limit yourself a little.

      What worries me with such research though is the question of how 'open' it will be once someone starts to patent the human genome. That should be outlawed from the beginning, but isn't as I've seen. And it's sort of strange to me that the same country that claims itself to believe in the rights of freedom for the individual is prepared to patent and sell that individuals genes to the highest bidder. No one more than me that gets a headache there?

      We will see Allen, no matter how well meaning your project may be I still wonder what human greed will translate it into.

  2. Kevin Ronald Lohse

    logged in via Facebook

    We already know the current position of the Obama Brain Activity Map - so statistically significant activity for the past 5 years.

  3. George Naumovski

    Online Political Activist

    To let the private sector/commercial do it, it will just be purely on profit base and most likely will not happen. On this issue it is the governments with the support of the people that will make it happen! The thing is; do we want to make it happen?

  4. Charles Watson

    John Curtin Distinguished Professor of Health Science at Curtin University

    Thank you Melissa Cochrane for your comprehensive rebuttal. My intention was to tell the general public that there is another side to the hype about big computer brain projects. I have been in neuroscience for over 40 years and I have seen many 'big ideas' come and go, and I am not alone in my position as a sceptic. But I do keep my eye out for real breakthroughs, and of course I may be wrong and the Human Brain Project may deliver the goods, and that would be a wonderful thing!
    In the meantime, most of this talk of the possibilities of large scale integration reminds me of Hofstadter's 'Ant Fugue.'

  5. Matthew Kirkcaldie

    Senior Lecturer in Neuroscience

    Nice article Charles, and an opinion I largely share. I wanted to add a comment to highlight an issue which not often explored when discussing computer modelling of the brain, which is the choice of scale. It might be because the issue is abstract, or difficult to express, but I will give it a shot. This is a very long post - you can skip to the paragraph beginning "In an organism ..." if you don't want to read the argument.
    If you make a computer simulation of something, you need to decide how…

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  6. Stephen Pritchard

    Researcher, cognitive science

    Just filing a link to this scientific american article here, which is relevant to this discussion, if anyone is interested:

    Title: What’s Wrong with the Brain Activity Map Proposal

    With the president suggesting a multibillion-dollar neuroscience effort, a leading neuroscientist explains the deep conceptual problems with plans to record all the brain's neurons

    By Partha Mitra

    1. Stephen Pritchard

      Researcher, cognitive science

      In reply to Stephen Pritchard

      I might add that I agree with the general thrust of Charles Watson's article and Partha Mitra's article.

      To me, trying to work out how the brain/mind works by studying and modelling every neuron or activity spike would be like trying to work out how a computer operating system, or software such as Excel or Safari or SimCity work by mapping out all the transistors and the way electrons flow in the computer itself. There are so many levels of explanation in the mind (and in a computer!), and the extreme "bottom up" approach of brain mapping projects is difficult for me to fathom.