The Blue Brain Project

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A view from inside the neocortex of the highly organized network of neurons

The Neocortical Microcircuitry

The goal of the EPFL Blue Brain Project is groundbreaking and bold.

They aim to build a biologically-detailed digital reconstruction and simulation of a rodent’s brain, and ultimately the human brain.

The project entails using information from neuroscientific research to build comprehensive digital reconstructions of the brain, which include the brain’s different levels of organization and interactions.

The idea is to simulate brain activity using ‘snapshots’ of the anatomy and physiology of the brain and mathematical models of individual neurons and synapses to compute the electrical activity of networks as they evolve over time.

These simulation models can be used to replicate past laboratory experiments or suggest new experiments. A comparison of results between laboratory and simulation is an important step to test the validity of the computer models (for a more detailed description of this process, please visit the Blue Brain website).

Due to the immense complexity of a rodent’s brain – let alone a human brain – these simulations require huge computational power that is only possible with a supercomputer.

To achieve this ambitious goal, they have a particular structure and way of managing the project. We spoke to Director of Operations Adriana Salvatore who gave us an insight into the organisation’s inner workings.

The structure

The project is divided into three divisions:

  • the Computing Division
  • the Simulation Neuroscience Division, led by Henry Markram who is also the Founder and Director of the Blue Brain Project
  • and, the Operations Division.

These divisions are again divided into various sections with more specialized tasks including:

  • Neuroscientific Software Engineering
  • Neurorobotics
  • Neuroinformatics
  • Core Services
  • Cells and Circuits
  • Membrane Systems
  • High Performance Computing
  • and the Scientific Visualization section.

This is a huge undertaking bringing together many scientists and professionals from different fields. Additionally, the project works with numerous other collaborators. Due to the complexity of the scientific goal all the scientists have to work efficiently together, which is in itself not an easy task.

The size

At the moment, the project has 116 people officially employed representing 29 different nationalities.

While multinational teams in research are common, scientific cooperation usually happens in much smaller groups. Because of the scope of the Blue Brain Project cooperation is on a much larger scale.

To facilitate this a number of facilities are available: rooms for sharing and working together with the necessary equipment, separate offices for those handling more sensitive or personal information, quiet corners with comfortable chairs and sofas, and a large whiteboard in the coffee room for jotting down spontaneous ideas or mathematical equations. In short, no effort has been spared to provide the ideal working space for everyone.

Project management

Project management has to be adapted to the task. The Blue Brain Project uses a tailor-made approach using elements of Waterfall project management (to reach the necessary milestones), and elements of Agile project management (to allow for the elaboration of ideas and tools). Many ideas start in an exploratory research phase before they are evaluated to see if and how they are integrated into the larger project.

Requirements to work for the Blue Brain Project

Advanced knowledge of Python is an excellent skill to have coupled with a genuine demonstrated interest of your field. As Operations Director Adriana Salvatore told GBN, “having a PhD is not enough to be hired as a researcher at Blue Brain, we look for exceptional talent”.

With 29 different nationalities working together, there is a big emphasis on cooperation. Any potential applicant should be able to communicate efficiently and accurately with people from other cultures and experts from very different fields.

Last, but certainly not least, motivation is key.

As in any job or role, if the person does not have the right motivation that aligns perfectly with the project their work will eventually deviate from the goal.

You would not want a doctor more interested in making money than in saving lives, would you? The same applies here – as in you have to be interested in the project itself and appreciated the innovation it will bring, otherwise you will soon notice you are not at the right place. This counts for the scientists but also for administrators, communications and other key employees as they are all needed for the smooth running of the project.

Outreach

The Blue Brain Project is eager to share their knowledge and work.

They have an outreach space where they regularly host educational visits from schools, universities, NGOs and other members of the local community (for more information on this, please see here). They have also launched the Blue Brain Portal, which is an easy access knowledge space for simulation neuroscience. Here, the project shares models, software, tools, data, images, and even propose free MOOCs (Massive Open Online Courses) for students interested in simulation neuroscience.

In a true quest for understanding, reaching the goal is worth nothing if not shared with others.

 

Sources:

We would like to thank the Director of Operations, Adriana Salvatore, for her time on this article.

Blue Brain Project

Photo:

Blue Brain Project / EPFL ©2005 – 2018. All rights reserved.

Sebastien De schrijver About Sebastien De schrijver

I am a cognitive psychologist finishing my thesis at the University of Geneva about human working memory. The understanding of how the human brain processes information has far-reaching consequences for the way we organize parts of society.

I am particularly interested in how cognitive psychology and neurosciences can explain human behavior. I aim to use recent research in this field to achieve meaningful durable change in society.

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