10 April 2013

Brain: cartography and "reverse engineering"

In the USA and Europe, the human brain will be thoroughly studied

Yuri Ilyin, Computer Science

About 86 billion neurons. About a hundred trillion synapses. The average weight is 1.5 kg, the average volume is 1130 cm3. These are the characteristics of the adult brain. By themselves, these values do not tell much to non-specialists. However, even a layman can easily imagine what resources should be spent in order to make a complete map of the human brain with all its numerous structures – and establish their purpose.

In early February, a scientific megaproject aimed at "understanding" the human brain was announced by European researchers. Then in early April, the US government announced its readiness to allocate $ 100 million for a similar (essentially) project already in America. It is clear that for an enterprise of this scale, 100 million is not enough, to put it mildly: according to some estimates, more than three billion dollars will be spent on an American project over the next decade. The preliminary estimate of the European project is somewhat more modest – 1.19 billion euros. However, given that the budget of such undertakings may begin to grow over time, it is possible that in the end large sums will be spent at times, both in Europe and in the USA.

For what?

To understandThe human brain is the Terra Incognita of world science.

This is an axiom, at least for now. It took many decades for various kinds of brain research, and for good reason: neurosurgeons are doing wonders today. And yet, the unknown is still much more than the unknown.

"The functioning of individual cells is well explained, but understanding how the brain functions as a whole as a result of the interaction of thousands and millions of neurons is available only in a very simplified form and requires further in–depth research," the corresponding Wikipedia article rightly states.

Yes, science knows what individual areas of the brain are responsible for; where the motor and speech centers are located, which areas are responsible for memory formation, and which are responsible for pleasure. However, as already mentioned, there are a lot of questions to which there are no answers. The human brain is responsible for the vital activity of his entire body as a whole, as well as for thought processes. For the mind. And what is it?

I regularly have to read and hear about the next technical method and tools for "mind reading", for reading visual images and memories, and similar wonderful things. But no matter how complex and high–tech such experiments may be, there remains a huge number of "white spots" - there are still almost more of them than the areas studied in any detail.

European and American researchers have decided on projects that are as complex as, and possibly significantly exceed, the complexity of the human genome decoding project (which had a budget of about $ 3 billion).

It seems more appropriate to compare the Human Brain Project (Europe) and Brain Activity Map Project (USA) with the construction of the Large Hadron Collider (already because similar fundamental tasks are being solved). And, it should be noted, analogies with the Tower of Babel also suggest themselves.

Reverse engineeringThe goal of the Human Brain Project is to bring together all the knowledge of the human brain available to the world science today.

Then, based on these data, simulate the human brain using supercomputer technologies. That is, in fact, to carry out "reverse engineering" of the human brain in order to find out in detail the content of its "source code" and get a complete picture from individual fragments.

The project will require the efforts of a very large number of people. Those who are already directly related to the project, quite openly say that the creation of new technologies is almost the main goal of the Human Brain Project.

Professor Henry Markram, one of the directors of the Human Brain Project, said: "What we are proposing is the formation of a radically new enterprise for the study and understanding of the brain, its diseases; and based on this knowledge, the creation of new computing technologies."

We are talking about so-called "neuromorphic" computers that will simulate the work of neurons and synapses, combining "the power of electronics with the flexibility of the human mind." Thus, it is assumed that new – radically new – computing technologies will be the result of this entire ten-year project.

The Americans, judging by the available information, are acting in the opposite direction.

Cerebral anesthesia and neurographyThe American Brain Activity Map Project has a longer (and adequate to the content) name: Brain Research through Advancing Innovative Neurotechnologies – "Brain research through the development of innovative neurotechnologies".

The ultimate stated goal of the 13-year duration of the project is to create a complete map of the brain at the level of individual neurons. That is, cell-by-cell. That is, with a description of what exactly each neuron is doing at any given moment.

And that's exactly where new technologies will be needed, simply because there are currently no technologies for recording neuronal impulses in "real time" mode.

At the end of January in Smitsonian.com a video clip was published in which the brain work of the striped danio fry was demonstrated – in "real time".

The fry was teased with food, and this caused him "certain considerations".

In order to visualize these processes, it was necessary to make a gene modification of the fish – it was injected with a gene that begins to fluoresce in the presence of calcium ions. Thanks to this, it was possible to see which areas of the fry's brain were activated.

A month later, another video was published with visualization of almost (80%) of the entire brain of the same fry at the level of, allegedly, individual neurons. But the shooting was carried out at a speed of one frame in 1.3 seconds, and even such results were not easy to achieve.

Meanwhile, there are only 100 thousand neurons in the brain of the baby danio. One can imagine how much more advanced tools will be required to compile a complete map of the human brain, compared to those that are available to neuroscientists now.

According to Professor William Newsom from Stanford University (one of the participants of the Brain Activity Map Project), today, with the help of modern methods, researchers can register the activity of at most several hundred neurons at the same time.

For the successful implementation of the brain mapping project, new theoretical approaches, new computing technologies, new data recording tools (at the nanotechnology level) and even "new mathematics" will be needed – simply by virtue of how many neurons will have to be monitored and, accordingly, how much data will have to be collected and processed.

Apparently, researchers will not even immediately take up mapping the human brain. A number of scientists suggested starting with studies of the nervous system of the worm Caenorhabditis elegans, a free–living nematode (by the way, a project is already underway in Russia to model a virtual double of C. elegans), then – to start "mapping" the drosophila neurons, then - the brain of the same striped danio, then rodents, and only then it will be the turn to draw up maps of the human the brain. In parallel, it is planned to develop and test fundamentally new technologies (nanotechnology, most likely) for monitoring the activity of neurons.
The Art of Intelligence

So, two projects, similar in essence, but in different directions. One directly suggests the "reverse engineering" of the human brain in order to create "fundamentally new computing technologies." That is, it must be understood, artificial intelligence.

Another project aims to "decompose" the human brain into individual neurons and thoroughly study its entire structure and all its mechanisms. And then, most likely, also try to do something artificial and intellectual based on the knowledge gained.

Although the creators of both projects claim that the main thing they aim at is the discovery of means of treatment and prevention, in particular, of neurodegenerative diseases – Alzheimer's disease, multiple sclerosis and other ailments associated with the destruction of nervous tissue. Apparently, there will be completely new ways to treat drug addiction and alcoholism, as well as all kinds of disorders related to the psyche? – such conclusions suggest themselves.

And at the same time, very interesting questions are raised: if a person really knows everything about his brain, will he know everything about his consciousness and mind? And how will he want to use this knowledge?

Will full knowledge of our brain free us from unnecessary fears, or will it add new ones? Will it become a kind of "conquest of paradise" or the construction of the Tower of Babel, which will eventually provoke a hostile reaction of some unknown forces of nature, on the territory of which it would be better for a person not to climb at all?

Will there be any hidden resources in the brain that can be activated by an effort of will (or reason)? Or will it turn out that in fact the average person does not have any hidden superpowers and has never had them, and isolated cases of their manifestation are the consequences of some strange mutations or simple fraud?

Will the long-predicted possibility of complete "digitization" of consciousness, its safe storage, "digital immortality" appear?

Won't knowledge about consciousness lead to the formation of ideal or near–ideal tools for manipulating people - individually and en masse? Or, on the contrary, will any attempts at manipulation become futile in fact? Will "full self–awareness" lead to the improvement of human nature as such, or as a result, there will be a stratification into castes - "masters of reason" who control the instruments of manipulation of consciousness, and their "subjects", obedient, controlled, but on the other hand, they nourish absolute (then purposefully cultivated) confidence in their moral superiority over "masters"?

Will the notorious singularity be achieved, and what will be its consequences? Will there be a sharp evolutionary leap of the Homo sapiens species as a whole, or should we expect the division of humanity into irreconcilable parties of supporters of natural development and adherents of technological augmentation?

Both projects form a colossal scope for fantasies, an excellent seed for literary plots, equally utopian and dystopian. In the meantime, we have only two announced projects, grandiose in design, estimated scale and duration (more than ten years) and little predictable in terms of final results.

Portal "Eternal youth" http://vechnayamolodost.ru09.04.2013

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