Henry Markram is a man on a mission to map the entire human brain, so that, one day, doctors can effectively fight neurological diseases such as Parkinson's, Alzheimer's and Autism. With that in mind, his department at one of Switzerland's leading technology institutes is piecing together a 3-0 model of the organ, while preparing far the future's lightning-speed computers. But there are technological and financial hurdles, which Markram is determined to overcome.
As I sit talking to Professor Markram. I suddenly feel like I am in the film The Matrix. He tells me that I am imagining our whole conversation and that I am not seeing him with my eyes. Even though I believe that I am He argues that my brain is building a model of his tall stature and piercing green blue eyes and all that surrounds us, as if in a bubble. "The brain is the machine that is building this fantastic world for us to play around in, but we walk inside this model: we do not walk inside the real world," he explains
As a neuroscientist, Henry Markram is fascinated with the organ that creates our consciousness He is Director of the Brain Mind Institute at Lausanne's Swiss Federal Institute of Technology (EPFL) which he set up just over a decade ago, and his brainchild is the Blue Brain Project. This sets out to create a detailed three dimensional map of the entire human brain, including neurons (brain cells), synapses (the junctions across which nerve impulses pass) and glia (the nervous system's connective tissue).
The model would potentially have huge implications on our knowledge of this highly complex organ and, crucially, how we fight neurological diseases. "There are about 560 clinically classified [neurological] diseases, but today, we do not understand a single one of them,' explains Markram. The mental illness that doctors know the most about is Parkinson's disease, brought on when a certain brain cell dies. However, they don't know why the loss of this brain cell causes the disease or why when they administer the drug, the patient stops trembling--one of Parkinson's main symptoms.
Getting to know the brain
So how much do we really know about the brain? Some 200,000 scientists around the world currently experiment on specific aspects of it, and 60,000 papers are published on the subject of its functions each year. We know a lot about small parts of the organ, but we dent know how these pieces fit together to form the big picture. "We don't yet...