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February 27, 2012

Exascale Brain Simulation Project Attracts Critics

Robert Gelber

Henry Markram, the man behind the Human Brain Project (HBP) wants to simulate all known information about the human brain. The project requires heavy investment and has been received with skepticism by some of Markram’s colleagues, but he seems determined that this project will help neuroscientists answer unsolved mysteries about the human brain.

Last week, Nature ran a feature story about Markram, outlining his pitch for HBP, whose goal is to simulate the human brain using a supercomputer.  In fact, Markram wants to generate a multi-level simulation of the brain, or as he puts it, “from the genetic level, the molecular level, the neurons and synapses, how microcircuits are formed, macrocircuits, mesocircuits, brain areas — until we get to understand how to link these levels, all the way up to behavior and cognition”. Markram believes such an approach will integrate a lot of disparate research from the neuroscience community under a single model.

A simulation with this much complexity requires a huge amount of computing power, at least an exaflop, Markram believes.  Although exascale machines are years away, he makes the argument that neuroscientists should nonetheless be preparing for this level of computing.

According to the Nature report, Markram’s project is competing for a $1.3 billion (€1 billion) pot of money from European Union that will be allocated to two ten-year Flagship initiatives. HBP is one of the six finalists still in the running.

Critics of the Human Brain Project express concerns about a loss of research diversity in the scientific community, and that the level of complexity in this effort could eventually lead to its downfall. Neuroscientists are already running simple models to help discover basic forms of behavior such as pattern recognition and posit that such a detailed model of the brain may end up being no easier to understand than an actual brain.  Also, the price tag of the project likely means that funding for HBP would reduce investment in other areas of research.

Despite his detractors, Markram still believes the Human Brain Project is essential to understanding the unsolved mysteries of the brain. “If we don’t have an integrated view, we won’t understand these diseases,” he says in the Nature article.

 If HBP fails to receive funding, Markram will continue with this research, albeit at a slower pace, under his “Blue Brain” project, which is the precursor to HBP.  In either case, Markram believes that simulation of the brain will move forward, noting that simulation-based research is “an inevitability.”


A project with this much complexity and cost runs a number of risks, but also has the potential to be a game changer in the field of neuroscience. While Markram’s critics may see the project as a threatening to replace their research work, they carry strong arguments regarding the need to maintain scientific diversity and balanced use of funding.

Full story at Nature