The Top Five Neuroscience Projects Happening Right Now

Thursday, January 5, 2012

For many, including Ray Kurzweil,  the path to artificial general intelligence lies with neuroscience, and more specifically the task of simulating the human brain.  

Whole brain emulation or mind uploading (sometimes called mind transfer) is the hypothetical process of transferring or copying a conscious mind from a brain to a non-biological substrate by scanning and mapping a biological brain in detail and copying its state into a computer system or another computational device. The computer would have to run a simulation model so faithful to the original that it would behave in essentially the same way as the original brain, or for all practical purposes, indistinguishable from the brain.  

For these reasons and more, the fields of neuroscience and artificial intelligence have experienced overlap and convergence in recent years.  

Kurzweil's Logarithmic Plot of Supercomputer Power

A number of projects to this end are taking place around the globe.  Here we outline and rate some of the more well-know projects.

1. The Blue Brain Project

Reconstructing the brain piece by piece and building a virtual brain in a supercomputer—these are some of the goals of the Blue Brain Project since 2005.  The virtual brain will be an exceptional tool giving neuroscientists a new understanding of the brain and a better understanding of neurological diseases. The ultimate goals of brain simulation are to answer age-old questions about how we think, remember, learn and feel, to discover new treatments for the scourge of brain disease and to build new computer technologies that exploit what we have learned about the brain.

As a first step, the project succeeded in simulating a rat cortical column. This neuronal network, the size of a pinhead, recurs repeatedly in the cortex. A rat’s brain has about 100,000 columns of in the order of 10,000 neurons each. In humans, the numbers are dizzying—a human cortex may have as many as  two million columns, each having in the order of 100,000 neurons each.

Led by Dr. Henry Markram, The Blue Brain Project recently joined with other 12 partners  to propose the Human Brain Project – a very large 10 year project that will pursue precisely these aims. The new grouping has just been awarded a  Eur 1.4 million European grant to formulate a detailed proposal.

2. The Human Brain Project

As mentioned in some of the other projects, The Human Brain Project is currently a proposal to amalgamate some of these projects under one umbrella project.  


The project is integrating everything we know about the brain into computer models and using these models to simulate the actual working of the brain. Ultimately, it will attempt to simulate the complete human brain. The models built by the project will cover all the different levels of brain organisation – from individual neurons through to the complete cortex. The goal is to bring about a revolution in neuroscience and medicine and to derive new information technologies directly from the architecture of the brain.


SyNAPSE is a DARPA program that aims to develop electronic neuromorphic machine technology that scales to biological levels. More simply stated, it is an attempt to build a new kind of computer with similar form, function, and architecture to the mammalian brain. Such artificial brains would be used in robots whose intelligence matches that of rats, cats, and ultimately even humans.

IBM is largely involved with SyNAPSE, under the Cognitive Computing Project.

4. Numenta / Hierarchical Temporal Memory Theory

Jeff Hawkins argues that attempts to create an artificial intelligence by simply programming a computer to do what a brain does are flawed and that to actually make an intelligent computer, we simply need to teach it to find and use patterns, not to attempt any specific tasks. Through this method, he thinks we can build intelligent machines, helping us do all sorts of useful tasks that current computers cannot achieve. He further argues that this memory-prediction system as implemented by the brain's cortex is the basis of human intelligence.

Numenta, a company formed by Hawkins was created to develop the theories Hawkins put forth in the book, On Intelligence.  Numenta is developing what will potentially be a category-defining product based on this technology. The product promises to dramatically reduce the cost and difficulty of extracting value from any type of data.

Hawkins is a spokesperson of sorts for the neuroscience and AI communities, however Numenta has recently been promising breakthrough developments.  As a former computer engineer turned neuroscientist, he embodies the convergence of the formerly separate fields of study.  

5. The Human Connectome Project

The Human Connectome Project aims to provide an unparalleled compilation of neural data, an interface to graphically navigate this data and the opportunity to achieve never before realized conclusions about the living human brain.

The Human Connectome Project (HCP) is a project to construct a map of the complete structural and functional neural connections in vivo within and across individuals. The HCP represents the first large-scale attempt to collect and share data of a scope and detail sufficient to begin the process of addressing deeply fundamental questions about human connectional anatomy and variation. A collaboration between MGH and UCLA, the HCP is being developed to employ advanced neuroimaging methods, and to construct an extensive informatics infrastructure to link these data and connectivity models to detailed phenomic and genomic data, building upon existing multidisciplinary and collaborative efforts currently underway. Working closely with other HCP partners based at Washington University in St. Louis we will provide rich data, essential imaging protocols, and sophisticated connectivity analysis tools for the neuroscience community.

Many of the neural connections can be seen on the Connectome Project's Connection Viewer.