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Kearsney College-educated neuroscientist to rebuild the human brain

| October 29, 2013 | 0 Comments

By Sue Miles

Kearsney College alumnus Professor Henry Markram is striving to ‘reverse engineer’ an entire human brain. The ambitious and technologically daunting plan is, within 10 years, to build a computer model of the human brain, based on uniting all existing knowledge about this complex organ and to reconstruct it, piece by piece, via supercomputer-based models and simulations.

Neuroscientist returns to ISASA alma mater to unveil project
Neuroscientist Markram heads up the Human Brain Project (HBP) at the Swiss Federal Institute for Technology (EPFL) and recently returned to his old school, Kearsney College in Botha’s Hill, KwaZulu-Natal, to explain the initiative and how it can be of benefit to fellow South Africans. Earlier this year, the European Commission announced its support of the vision by allocating it more than a billion euros (R14 billion) over a 10-year period. Based in Lausanne, Markram is founder of the Brain Mind Institute, coordinator of the HBP, as well as founder and director of Blue Brain, a super-computing development which models components of the mammalian brain to precise cellular detail, and simulates their activity in 3D. But for what purpose?

Understanding the brain one of our greatest challenges
Markram believes that in trying to understand the human brain, it will be possible to understand mental health and develop brain-inspired technology. This technology is essential to understand, treat and even prevent mental illness, neurological disorders, traumatic brain injuries, as well as behavioural problems. “Understanding the human brain is one of the greatest challenges facing 21st century science,” Markram told his fascinated audience.

Markram said the project will also benefit South Africans, not only on a scientific level, but also on a social one. “For example, South Africa has one of the highest rates in the world of abuse against women. It appears to be an extreme form of generalised narcissistic behaviour that is unprecedented. We believe in the future it will be possible to clinically identify these traits and come up with possible solutions and interventions.” He said it was also important to give South Africans access to the project, which will be done through outreach at a Johannesburg-based science museum and through direct involvement of students in the project.

Markram an example of what South Africa can produce
Whilst the Human Brain Project will be officially launched in Europe during October to develop a collaborative infrastructure for scientists and medical doctors in Europe and around the world, Markram chose his former school from which to raise awareness and give an overview of the project. He matriculated from Kearsney in 1980, where he was a prefect and captain of athletics and cross-country. He graduated with a BSc (Hons) from the University of Cape Town, PhD in neuroscience from the Weizmann Institute of Science in Israel, and also studied at the National Institutes of Health in the United States and the Max Planck Institute for Medical Research in Heidelberg, Germany. Markram said he hoped the project would change the way researchers work, as it was imperative that the various scientists involved – such as molecular neuroscientists and cognitive neuroscientists – talk to each other.

An adventure into deep space
“Gone are the days of the lone scientist. We are creating an internet platform to facilitate people working together as teams.” Markram said this was the first model of the brain which would be biologically accurate. He believes it will result in new platforms for ‘neuromorphic computing’ and ‘neurorobotics’, which will make possible the development of new computing systems and robots based on the architecture and circuitry of the brain.



Category: Summer 2013

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