Wednesday, February 22, 2012

$1.3B 'Brain in a Box' Project Faces Skepticism: Scientific American

$1.3B 'Brain in a Box' Project Faces Skepticism: Scientific American: At the heart of that approach is Markram's conviction that a good unifying model has to assimilate data from the bottom up. In his view, modelers should start at the most basic level--he focuses on ion channels because they determine when a neuron fires--and get everything working at one level before proceeding to the next. This requires a lot of educated guesses, but Markram argues that the admittedly huge gaps in knowledge about the brain can be filled with data as experiments are published--the Blue Brain model is updated once a week. The alternative approach, approximating and abstracting away the biological detail, leaves no way to be sure that the model's behavior has anything to do with how the brain works, said Markram.

This is where other computational neuroscientists gnash their teeth. Most of them are already using simple models of individual neurons to explore high-level functions such as pattern recognition. Markram's bottom-up approach risks missing the wood for the trees, many of them argued in Bern: the model could be so detailed that it is no easier to understand than the real brain. And that is if Markram can build it at all. Judging by what Blue Brain has accomplished in the past six years, critics said, that seems unlikely. The tiny swathe of simulated rat cortex has no inputs from sensory organs or outputs to other parts of the brain, and produces almost no interesting behavior, pointed out Kevan Martin, co-director of the INI, in an e-mail. It is "certainly not the case" that Markram has simulated the column as it works in a whole animal, he said.

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