How the Human Brain Project Built a Mind of its Own

How the Human Brain Project Built a Mind of its Own

In 2013, the Human Brain Project set out to build a realistic computer model of the brain over ten years. Now, experts are reflecting on HBP's achievements with an eye toward the future.

The Human Brain Project

In 2009, neuroscientist Henry Markram gave an ambitious TED talk. “Our mission is to build a detailed, realistic computer model of the human brain,” he said, naming three reasons for this unmatched feat of engineering. One was because understanding the human brain was essential to get along in society. Another was because experimenting on animal brains could only get scientists so far in understanding the human ones. Third, medicines for mental disorders weren’t good enough. “There are two billion people on the planet that are affected by mental disorders, and the drugs that are used today are largely empirical,” Markram said. “I think that we can come up with very concrete solutions on how to treat disorders.”

Markram's arguments were very persuasive. In 2013, the European Commission launched the Human Brain Project, or HBP, as part of its Future and Emerging Technologies program. Viewed as Europe’s chance to try to win the “brain race” between the U.S., China, Japan, and other countries, the project received about a billion euros in funding with the goal to simulate the entire human brain on a supercomputer, or in silico, by 2023.

Now, after 10 years of dedicated neuroscience research, the HBP is coming to an end. As its many critics warned, it did not manage to build an entire human brain in silico. Instead, it achieved a multifaceted array of different goals, some of them unexpected.

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Kenna Hughes-Castleberry
Kenna Hughes-Castleberry is a writer, podcaster, and science communicator. She currently works as the Science Communicator at JILA and is the Editor-in-Chief of their journal Light & Matter. She is also a freelance science journalist and writes for Inside Quantum Technology as a freelance staff editor. Her beats include deep technology, quantum technology, metaverse technology, and diversity within these industries. Kenna’s work has been featured in various publications including Scientific American, Discover Magazine, Ars Technica, Physics.org, Inside Quantum Technology, The Quantum Insider, The Deep Tech Insider, the Metaverse Insider, The Debrief, and Octonation. She currently sits on the board of SWARM (Science Writers Association of the Rocky Mountains) as well as teaches science writing to graduate students at JILA. You can find her on Twitter and Instagram: @kennaculture
This man spent over 70 years in an iron lung. What he was able to accomplish is amazing.

Paul Alexander spent more than 70 years confined to an iron lung after a polio infection left him paralyzed at age 6. Here, Alexander uses a mirror attached to the top of his iron lung to view his surroundings.

Allison Smith / The Guardian

It’s a sight we don’t normally see these days: A man lying prone in a big, metal tube with his head sticking out of one end. But it wasn’t so long ago that this sight was unfortunately much more common.

In the first half of the 20th century, tens of thousands of people each year were infected by polio—a highly contagious virus that attacks nerves in the spinal cord and brainstem. Many people survived polio, but a small percentage of people who did were left permanently paralyzed from the virus, requiring support to help them breathe. This support, known as an “iron lung,” manually pulled oxygen in and out of a person’s lungs by changing the pressure inside the machine.

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Sarah Watts

Sarah Watts is a health and science writer based in Chicago.

When doctors couldn’t stop her daughter’s seizures, this mom earned a PhD and found a treatment herself.

Savannah Salazar (left) and her mother, Tracy Dixon-Salazaar, who earned a PhD in neurobiology in the quest for a treatment of her daughter's seizure disorder.

LGS Foundation

Twenty-eight years ago, Tracy Dixon-Salazaar woke to the sound of her daughter, two-year-old Savannah, in the midst of a medical emergency.

“I entered [Savannah’s room] to see her tiny little body jerking about violently in her bed,” Tracy said in an interview. “I thought she was choking.” When she and her husband frantically called 911, the paramedic told them it was likely that Savannah had had a seizure—a term neither Tracy nor her husband had ever heard before.

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Sarah Watts

Sarah Watts is a health and science writer based in Chicago.