Mapping the brain: from molecules to mind

A talk on data analysis may not seem like the most exciting topic but it was one of the highlights of my recent trip to Berlin. Anastasia Ailamaki based in the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology (EPFL) spoke about the gap between data collection and analysis. It was no surprise to anyone when Ailamaki mentioned that no technology grows faster than computer technology and the data we collect grows even more rapidly! Currently, data collection grows much faster than our ability to process that data and her work “is trying to bridge that gap through efficient data management”.

Ailamaki’s research includes the Human Brain Project which I found the most fascinating aspect of her talk. This project will harness data involved in how the brain works all the way from molecules to cognition. She explained how currently huge amounts of data needs to be trawled through before finding what you require. By integrating data models and using efficient data management this project aims to enable access to data by clicking on a simulation of the brain. Imagine a picture of the brain that you can zoom in on, past functional areas such as the cortex, interacting neurons, proteins within a neuron and eventually down to gene and molecule level. This project involves neuroscientists, computer engineers, mathematicians and physicists who will be working together to develop this simulation.

Anastasia Ailamaki speaking this month in Berlin. Photo: Science Calling

When I returned home I was curious to know what mapping such a detailed simulation could achieve. Included in the potential impacts are testing of novel treatments, diagnostic tools, reduction of animal testing, interactive supercomputing and new capabilities in intelligent robotics. Currently there is no comparison between the brain and computers but this project hopes to close that gap. The brain has the ability to repair itself, to take decisions, to learn, and to think creatively. Amazingly, this consumes no more energy than a light bulb. One of the fascinating futuristic ideas in this research is brain-inspired supercomputing. This could be a not-so-distant possibility once the basic principles underlying the brains design and operation are discovered. Neuromorphic microchips (photo above) are also mentioned. They have a similar brain-computer basis as they “morph” the structure of neural connections into silicon circuits.

The Human Brain Project is one of six European Commission Future and Emerging Technologies (FET) Flagship pilot projects. It has been given one year to conduct feasibility studies and is due to report these in April 2012. One to two projects will be chosen from these pilots and awarded €1 billion funding (max of €100 million each year for 10 years). The aim of this gigantic amount of money is to accelerate breakthroughs in the chosen areas for the benefit of EU citizens. I was disappointed to discover that there are no Irish researchers working on this particular project but delighted to see (upon further searching) the other five FET Flagship pilot projects have Irish researcher involvement.

Two of these, Guardian Angels and FuturICT, include partners from University College Cork. Guardian Angels proposes to use nanotechnology to develop devices that are powered by sources of energy such as movement, changes in temperature and other sources in the immediate environment. They hope to monitor health information such as temperature and blood glucose level. FuturICT aims to use the vast amount of data available on people’s movements and behaviour to interpret how they are inter-related. They will take data from a number of different areas such as disease contagion and crime. They hope these will enable the team to map and prepare for broader public issues.

Data analysis is certainly an upcoming and rapidly developing field of science. It will be interesting to find out who will be awarded the FET Flagship funding as their research will definitely be one to watch. With such a great amount of funding, many breakthroughs and technological advances will be expected from the team. No pressure!

Top Photo: Zephyris / Wikimedia Commons