It’s finally happened — scientists construct part of a rat brain in a computer

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Glass Brain / Adam Gazzaley
Reverse engineering has rarely looked as cool as it does now, with the achievement by scientists of the partial reconstruction of a rat brain out of nothing more than a computer. That’s right — no organic matter was harmed in the making of this brain (except for maybe the billions of human brain cells expended on this incredible project).

After a decade of work, the Blue Brain Project of the École Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne claims, in a paper published in Cell, that it has created 31,000 virtual neurons comprised of 207 individual neuron subtypes. While the entire rat brain is estimated to have some 21 million neurons, even this tiny portion of the organ has scientists agog with the new realm of possibilities this latest discovery unlocks.

The ultimate goal of the $1 billion endeavor is not only to construct a whole rat brain in a computer, but a human brain as well. This project is separate from efforts to upload a consciousness to the cloud — rather, the hope here, as the New York Times explains, is for researchers to be able to “digitally encode some characteristics of neurons and their connections that are common to all brains.” Cori Bargmann of New York’s Rockefeller University calls the progress thus far an “amazing tour de force” of data, but still, she notes, there is significant work that is yet to be completed.

Digitizing all or portions of the brain, some researchers say, will unlock new ways for the body’s most complex organ to be studied in greater detail, but there are certainly members of the scientific community who have reservations both regarding the ethics of the endeavor as well as its overall usefulness. The Blue Brain Project “has been hyped immensely,” said Max Planck Institute for Brain Research director Moritz Helmstaedter in an interview with Science. “But what happened is exactly what we feared: There are no real findings. Putting together lots and lots of data does not create new science.”And an open letter in 2014 signed by hundreds of neuroscientists criticized the project’s “overly narrow approach.”

Regardless, Bargmann says, it’s far too early to pass judgment. “They built a 747, and it’s taxiing around the runway,” she told the New York Times. “I haven’t seen it fly yet, but it’s promising.” So watch out world. The digitized brain just may be headed your way.

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