The concept of artificial intelligence has become a hot topic in recent years, both in the labs and at the movies. But if you've ever wondered what a digital brain would actually look like, well - wonder no more.
The image above, from the experimental biology journal Cell, is a virtual model of a particular section of a rat's brain. It's the product of a 10-year global initiative called the Blue Brain Project, whose ultimate goal is to create a complete digital simulation of the entire human brain.
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Hosted at the prestigious Ecole Polytechnique Federale de Lausanne (EPFL) institute in Switzerland, the Blue Brain Project is taking a direct engineering approach to the challenge of creating a digital brain. The research team essentially took apart a slice of rat brain, then put it back together again using powerful supercomputers that can simulate the behavior of individual neurons.
The rat brain model - just a tiny slice of a tiny brain - contains more than 31,000 neurons, with 207 different neuron subtypes and 55 layers of cells. The virtual brain slice models the connectivity among all neurons, including 2,000 connections between each brain cell type and nearly 40 million synapses.
Of course, as any car mechanic can tell you, it's one thing to put together an engine - and another thing entirely to make it run. The Blue Brain model is more than just a map, it's an actual working simulation of an organic brain in which researchers can measure the electronic firing properties of neurons and the "circuit-level" behavior of brain wiring.
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The project represents a kind of first draft of what researchers hope will be much more ambitious reconstructions of rat brains, and eventually human brains. This first model focuses in on a slice of the brain's neocortex, an area that has been extensively mapped by other means, in previous research.
"The reconstruction required an enormous number of experiments," says EPFL lead researcher Henry Markram, "It paves the way for predicting the location, numbers, and even the amount of ion currents flowing through all 40 million synapses."
In case you want to get in the garage and noodle around with neocortical microcircuitry yourself this weekend, results from the study are now freely available to the scientific community at the Blue Brain Project portal site. Here's a little something to get you started - a rendering of an individual neuron with color-coded synapses.