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See Inside Scientific American Volume 306, Issue 6

A Countdown to a Digital Simulation of Every Last Neuron in the Human Brain

Building a vast digital simulation of the brain could transform neuroscience and medicine and reveal new ways of making more powerful computers



Courtesy of Arthur W. Toga/Laboratory of Neuro Imaging and Randy Buckner/Martinos Center for Biomedical Imaging (www.humanconnectomeproject.org)

Reductionist biology—examining individual brain parts, neural circuits and molecules—has brought us a long way, but it alone cannot explain the workings of the human brain, an information processor within our skull that is perhaps unparalleled anywhere in the universe. We must construct as well as reduce and build as well as dissect. To do that, we need a new paradigm that combines both analysis and synthesis. The father of reductionism, French philosopher René Descartes, wrote about the need to investigate the parts and then reassemble them to re-create the whole.

Putting things together to devise a complete simulation of the human brain is the goal of an undertaking that intends to construct a fantastic new scientific instrument. Nothing quite like it exists yet, but we have begun building it. One way to think of this instrument is as the most powerful flight simulator ever built—only rather than simulating flight through open air, it will simulate a voyage through the brain. This “virtual brain” will run on supercomputers and incorporate all the data that neuroscience has generated to date.

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