Computing the Human Brain

Computing the Human Brain
16.06.2020 | Guillermo Velasco

The Human Brain Project (HBP) is one of the most ambitious Flagship projects of the European Commission. With HBP, Europe aims not only to become a worldwide leader in understanding of  the complexity of human brain - which has more than 80 billion neurons, linked to each other through, on average, 7000 connections or synapses – but also a pioneer in translating such a complexity in supercomputing devices. It is indeed a colossal scientific work to explain how humans´ emotions, smiles, and fears are the result of electrical and chemical dynamics and assume that individuals´ personality depends on those physical expressions.

How can scientists tackle and approach this complexity? Human brain has different levels, from molecular, subcellular, or synapses level to the whole brain structure. There are many layers in-between that we need to unveil if we want to understand this incredibly enigmatic organ. To understand and replicate the human brain it is therefore necessary to utilise outstanding high-performance computing resources.

The Human Brain Project has something, in fact, that makes a difference from other brain international initiatives. The project is special because it combines, very closely, Neuroscience with Computing Science. This fruitful combination is unique in the world. In HBP four subprojects are dedicated to Neuroscience, and six subprojects are focused in the development of computing and informatics tools. These two worlds cohabit in HBP and make possible a highly multidisciplinary and collaborative work. HBP promotes the interaction of neuroscientists, computing researchers and psychologists who analyse ethical aspects of brain research. They work together throughout a network of more than 115 European partners.

An immediate goal is to construct a HBP research infrastructure, called EBRAINS, by 2023. This infrastructure is now being designed to become a powerful research instrument opened and accessible to the international neuroscience community beyond the end of the project.

Along the designing process of the infrastructure, HBP has developed six platforms. The Neuro-informatics platform already provides access, curate and depurate brain data generated in the project. The Brain simulation platform replicates the brain architecture and develops models to reproduce the way human brain works. You can thus remotely simulate brain processes in external computers. The High performance Analytics and Computing platform consists of several supercomputer centres in Europe that are connected to provide federated supercomputing, storage, visualisation and simulation technologies to neuroscientists. The Medical platform allows scientists to share clinical data, facilitating the utilisation of machine-learning tools and AI for mental diseases. The platform aims to share data between hospitals so that they can be compared and accelerate medical research. The Neuromorphic Computing platform draws on two very powerful neuromorphic devices: the BrainScaleS system (based in Heidelberg) and the SpiNNaker (Manchester). While the former is based on analogue electronics, the latter is digital, and both try to replicate, in few words, the way human brain thinks. They are brain-inspired computing machines whose performance is mostly based on cognitive computation and neuronal networks. They use data generated in the neuroscience HBP subprojects, simulate brain processes and give support to other parts of the project. Finally, the Neuro-robotics platform facilitates the simulation of brain models on virtual or real robotic bodies, so that they can eventually perform actions in simulated environments and learn on collected datasets from robot perceptions.

In short, HBP enables a win-win situation for Neuroscience and Computing science. On the one side Computing helps neuroscientists to understand better (and more quickly) the human brain mechanisms. And, in parallel, a better understanding of these mechanisms helps Computing scientists to replicate human thinking in machines and inspire brain-like computing performance. “Computing the brain” is, after all, the leitmotiv of this amazing project for the years ahead.

Relevant themes: Technology Development, Science & Research Policy
Relevant tags: Research infrastructures, Technological innovation


  • Guillermo Velasco - Universidad Politécnica de Madrid

    Guillermo Velasco

    Guillermo Velasco (PhD) is Scientific Manager of Innovation and Technology Transfer of the Flagship ‘Human Brain Project’ (European Commission) and senior researcher - Task leader - at the Universidad Politécnica de Madrid. He is also Honorary Research Fellow at the Manchester Institute of Innovation Research (MIOIR) of the University of Manchester (UoM) in the UK, where he completed a doctoral thesis on the generation of sound advice with Foresight. His academic background also includes a MPhil in Economics and Innovation Management (EU-SPRI) and a BEng in Industrial Organization from the Technical University of Madrid. He has over twenty years of experience working on innovation management as Director of Innovation in different industrial companies, and ten years as researcher and consultant for different institutions like the European Commission and United Nations, in Europe and Latin America. He has developed action research on foresight projects for making advice on the European Research Area, and contributed to the design of a new framework for assessment and management of sustainable innovation in the CASI project (EC). He has also been involved in Horizon scanning activities for the UK National Health system on health emerging technologies, and has experience, as SAP certified associated consultant, in Design Thinking methodologies for product development and innovation.