You may have already heard about the major brain mapping initiatives that are underway, or being planned, such as The Blue Brain Project, founded in Switzerland, and the proposed BRAIN Initiative (Brain Research through Advancing Innovative Neurotechnologies), founded in the United States.
The idea behind these projects is to create software versions of the individual neurons and neural circuits that make up the human brain.
The mapping of the brain, at the neuron level, will ultimately allow us to create full simulations of brain functions and increase our understanding of complex neurocognitive processes such as memory, perception, learning, and decision-making.
Advanced software emulations of human brain function have the potential to improve what we know about normal and abnormal brain behavior. They will make it possible to model psychiatric illnesses and to test models of the development, courses, and outcomes associated with these illnesses, which will be far more sophisticated than computer models of the past.
Simulated brains can also be “implanted” into virtual bodies and simulated environmental changes can be manipulated so that researchers can test how the simulation will interact, learn, and adapt within a given environment.
This could allow for complex tests of diathesis-stress models of psychopathology.
For example, researchers could model a brain with genetic or other pre-dispositional factors associated with depression and then apply simulated environmental stressors that may trigger the onset of the condition.
These simulations could be time-accelerated in a laboratory which would provide insight into the risk and the protective factors and processes associated with mental health or organic brain conditions such as traumatic brain injury (TBI).
Full mapping of the biological brain may also greatly accelerate the development of artificial intelligence (AI) and perhaps move the field closer to its goal of artificial human general intelligence. This may also allow researchers to learn more about the “mind” of artificial intelligence and even the nature of consciousness itself.
It would certainly be interesting to examine whether a virtually embodied artificial human brain will develop a subconscious mind, unwanted thoughts, or repressed memories. Further, as brain emulation continues to evolve, it may also be possible to “recreate” or “copy” the brains of human beings – an idea discussed by futurist Ray Kurzweil. As both exciting and frightening as this may sound, brain reconstruction is a logical endpoint of brain simulation initiatives.
Undoubtedly, the more human-like brain emulations become, the greater the possibilities will be for simulating and testing real-world parallels.
The human brain is incredibly complex (there are an estimated 86 billion neurons and trillions of connections between them), and therefore incredible computational power is required. Consider, however, that there continues to be significant advancements in supercomputer technologies and that The Blue Brain Project has already simulated a rat’s cortical column.
I am optimistic that advancements in brain emulation and other AI advancements (also see my previous post) will eventually lead to advanced mental health treatments and overall improved psychological health.
By David D. Luxton, PhD
Dr. Luxton is a Research Psychologist and Program Manager at the DoD’s National Center for Telehealth & Technology (T2)
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