Once these changes have been identified, Markram argues neuroscientists will be in a better position to draw up hypotheses about the underlying biological causes and test the hypotheses in his brain simulation. For instance, one patient diagnosed with schizophrenia and another diagnosed with depression might share the same mutated gene. Conversely, two patients diagnosed with schizophrenia might be found to have different gene mutations. In either case, the goal is to do away with the current classification system based on the subjective ordering of symptoms and syndromes and replace it with one that adheres more closely to biological signatures.
"We're not interested in getting more data on mental diseases," says Markram. "We are going to put all the diseases on the table and start working out mathematically how they are related to each other. There are going to be no names, just clusters. "The final stage would be to use this new biologically grounded classification system to develop new diagnostic tools and suggest strategies for drug development and treatment.
For Markram's critics, such statements strain credulity. There is no such thing as a "normal" brain, they say. Every brain is different - the serendipitous product of evolution and personal experience. Moreover, neural circuitry not only differs from one individual to another, it changes from hour to hour and day to day. Even if you could simulate one brain in all its complexity - and at
What neuroscience needs is diversity and a multiplicity of approaches by creative young researchers, not integrated top-down science, argues Markram's former mentor,
Markram's response to this is that he has never said his brain simulation is a replacement for animal experimentation; the point is to use the simulation to suggest lines of research that are likely to be most profitable. For proof his reverse-engineering methods work he points me to his Blue Brain wet lab, a short walk from his office on the other side of the Lausanne campus. The lab, which consists of a series of partitioned workstations manned by enthusiastic young researchers, is a far cry from his inner sanctum. Patch clamps and pipettes line the desks, while the walls are decorated with vivid images of rat synapses and posters demonstrating the firing patterns of different neuron types. It was here that in 2002 Markram began accumulating data on a section of the rat neocortex no larger than a pinhead. The column consists of about 30,000 neurons and thousands of synaptic pathways between neurons, only a small percentage of which have been measured experimentally.
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