Saturday, February 19, 2011

Spectacularly Complex

Whole ColumnComputer model of a single neocortical column from a rat's brain (Photo: IBM)

Excerpt from Portraits of the Mind: Visualizing the Brain from Antiquity to the 21st Century by Carl Schoonover:

This image shows the three-dimensional configuration of ten thousand simulated neurons that constitute a single neocortical column—an anatomical unit barely wider than the head of a pin. The neocortical column, believed to be a building block of the cerebral cortex, is a mere millimeter cubed, and is repeated countless times across the expanse of the human neocortex.

Since there is simply no way to gain full experimental insight into a process at this large a scale, the Blue Brain Project was launched in 2005 in collaboration with IBM to produce a computer simulation of it. It is so spectacularly complex that a dedicated state-of-the-art supercomputer is required to keep track of all the phenomena as they recurrently influence one another; even with this computational firepower, it still takes about one hundred seconds to simulate a single second of activity.

In order to make it as realistic as possible, a wide variety of factors in included in the simulation: genetics, the shape of the dendrites, and the neurophysiological characteristics imparted by their ion channel composition. Here we see the Blue Brain’s cortical column in action: Each dendrite is simulated individually and rendered so that its color (ranging from blue to red) represents its voltage at one moment in time.

The long-term goal of the project is to uncover the broad principles of the brain function and dysfunction by simulating the entire brain of mammals, including that of humans.

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Zooming Out, Highlighting a Single Neuron
Blue Brain Project video