Bringing a Virtual Brain to Life
For months, Henry Markram and his team had been feeding data into a supercomputer, four vending-machine-size black boxes whirring quietly in the basement of the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Lausanne.
The boxes housed thousands of microchips, each programmed to act like a brain cell. Cables carried signals from microchip to microchip, just as cells do in a real brain.
In 2006, Dr. Markram flipped the switch. Blue Brain, a tangled web of nearly 10,000 virtual neurons, crackled to life. As millions of signals raced along the cables, electrical activity resembling real brain waves emerged.The Blue Brain computer has 10,000 virtual neurons. The colors represent the neurons’ electric voltage at a specific moment.
“That was an incredible moment,” he said, comparing the simulation to what goes on in real brain tissue. “It didn’t match perfectly, but it was pretty good. As a biologist, I was amazed.”
Deciding then that simulating the entire brain on a supercomputer would be possible within his lifetime, Dr. Markram, now 50, set out to prove it.