Brain Electrophysiologist Wants €1 Billion To Model Entire Brain

“Brain researchers are generating 60,000 papers per year,” said Markram as he explained the concept in Bern. “They’re all beautiful, fantastic studies — but all focused on their one little corner: this molecule, this brain region, this function, this map.” The HBP would integrate these discoveries, he said, and create models to explore how neural circuits are organized, and how they give rise to behaviour and cognition — among the deepest mysteries in neuroscience. Ultimately, said Markram, the HBP would even help researchers to grapple with disorders such as Alzheimer’s disease. “If we don’t have an integrated view, we won’t understand these diseases,” he declared.

As the response at the meeting made clear, however, there is deep unease about Markram’s vision. Many neuroscientists think it is ill-conceived, not least because Markram’s idiosyncratic approach to brain simulation strikes them as grotesquely cumbersome and over-detailed. They see the HBP as overhyped, thanks to breathless media reports about what it will accomplish. And they’re not at all sure that they can trust Markram to run a project that is truly open to other ideas.

Read the details of the history and proposed future of Markram’s project, and the skepticism he is receiving about its viability in Nature.

Your Thoughts?

About Daniel Fincke

Dr. Daniel Fincke  has his PhD in philosophy from Fordham University and spent 11 years teaching in college classrooms. He wrote his dissertation on Ethics and the philosophy of Friedrich Nietzsche. On Camels With Hammers, the careful philosophy blog he writes for a popular audience, Dan argues for atheism and develops a humanistic ethical theory he calls “Empowerment Ethics”. Dan also teaches affordable, non-matriculated, video-conferencing philosophy classes on ethics, Nietzsche, historical philosophy, and philosophy for atheists that anyone around the world can sign up for. (You can learn more about Dan’s online classes here.) Dan is an APPA  (American Philosophical Practitioners Association) certified philosophical counselor who offers philosophical advice services to help people work through the philosophical aspects of their practical problems or to work out their views on philosophical issues. (You can read examples of Dan’s advice here.) Through his blogging, his online teaching, and his philosophical advice services each, Dan specializes in helping people who have recently left a religious tradition work out their constructive answers to questions of ethics, metaphysics, the meaning of life, etc. as part of their process of radical worldview change.

  • Konradius

    I like some of the ideas, I hate the plan.
    This is too much too soon. Let him continue with modelling a human eye. If he can get the model so far as to give the right input we may be able to cure all (ocular) blindness.
    But euros (in europe this is called one milliard and divided with dots, not commas) for a complete brain is too much of a gamble and gives totally unnecessary ethical problems like what if the brain becomes self-conscious?

    • Chris Hallquist

      Screw the ethical problems. What if it decides to assemble an army of copies of itself to take over the world?

  • Chris Hallquist


    The idea that we’re even close enough to be discussing this amazes me. Fills me with a weird sense of fear and excitement. Why?

    Here’s why.

  • Ysanne

    In my opinion, the idea is nice and exciting, but I doubt that it’s a good investment of €10^9 at this point in time.

    I work in simulation modelling.
    Already a model of a puny little mining logistics system (say 100 mines, rail network, ports) is awfully hard to get right, even though it’s only a combination of a few well-understood mechanisms and comes with very detailed real-world data against which you can verify your model. The aspect of computing time isn’t negligible, either, as it increases very quickly as a model gets more complex. Plus, a tiny difference in the logic can turn everything upside down, thanks to knock-on effects and the general non-linearity and chaotic nature of the system.
    But mainly, the problem is that even with an arsenal of measuring “probes”, it’s extremely hard to tell what’s going on inside the model. What you have is a flood of data, and it’s already quite hard to make sense of it when it describes a fairly straightforward system whose mechanisms and interactions you mostly understand already.

    So yeah, great idea — but IMHO it’s a way too long shot for this kind of money. There are just as important and way more promising scientific challenges that I think would be better candidates for this funding — particularly ones that are not based on a single guy’s media-popularised pet idea, but combine the ideas and efforts of many leading researchers.

    • Alex Songe

      Yeah, I agree. There’s so much complexity when things move from basic Input/Output to Input/Private Persistant State/Output. As a programmer, I know how quickly a deterministic system can get VERY unpredictable! It’ll be a long time before we figure out the brain because working on a brain that’s a tabula rasa in the way that would be fastest to study it is unethical, and we don’t have the kinds of models where an accurate history of the experiences of a person could help account for the private state.

  • felicis

    I think the figure is a bit lowball too – it would be a neat commitment to see a significant amount of money put towards a project like this, even if the final result almost certainly wouldn’t work because of what we could learn in the attempt. I wouldn’t give all that money to a single group though – farm it out over 100 universities…

    • sqlrob

      My thought as well. Only 1 Billion? I’d be impressed when it can be done that cheaply. I’m guessing it’s off by several orders of magnitude for a completed project.

      Certainly worth the research though.

  • eigenperson

    As a person who knows something (but not a lot!) about computers, I am pretty sure we don’t have anything CLOSE to the computing power to simulate a brain in a way that will teach us something about actual brains.

    We could, of course, simulate a brain made out of simplified neurons. That would not give us much information if aspects of human behavior depend on the realities of neuronal function that we arbitrarily omitted from the model. And I can almost guarantee you that they do.

    It might be worth attempting, but more as an exercise in advancing the science of simulation than as a way to understand the brain. Because we won’t learn very much about the brain, but we might learn a lot about very large computer systems.

    Also, I’m pretty sure it will cost a lot more than a billion euros.

  • Sam N

    Yeah, ‘nother neuroscientist here,. The guy is a dreamer without any real practical chances of success. Also, there are already a number of private companies working towards that aim. They aren’t putting the billion up front, but most of them are taking more sensible approaches of limiting a model to get a single sensorimotor circuit working with cognitive elements. Our knowledge of even basic circuits questions in individual brain structures isn’t even accurate enough for completely reliable models of that structure. Knowing the state of systems neuroscience well, I can guarantee you we are decades away from an artificial brain capable of computations in a rat, let alone a human.

  • Xenolith

    It’s an exciting idéa, by the time he gets the project funded the cost will drop one or two orders of magnitude making it feasable. In 50 years we will all have one of those in our mobile phones and only kids below 7 will get excited of the notion.
    Remember: today you can buy a “gaming computer” for teenagers with a GPU that gives you the same processing power as the worlds best supercomputers did only in the nineties.