Mapping the Jungle That Is the Human Brain Onto a Computer

Is the Human Brain Project another sci-fi ambition, or a soon-to-be reality? Only time can tell.

Oscar Petrov
7 min readDec 19, 2020



In 1859, Charles Darwin published his On the Origin of Species where he discusses his theory regarding natural selection. In 1865, Gregor Mendel developed the Mendelian laws of inheritance, which he devised through his work and experimentation on pea plants. And now, fast forward to today, Henry Markram and his team are currently working to create the first ever simulation of the entire human brain onto a computer.

Wait, so he is trying to catalog a three pound blob of nerve and tissue cells onto a computer? How hard could that be?

Well, it’s actually a lot harder than one might think, but before we dive into it, let’s go over some history.

Since the formation of life, and existence, organisms have been mechanically wired to undergo a process of change. This idea of ongoing change over time, or by which it is more commonly known as, evolution, has been the driving force of life for billions of years according to Darwin and many proponents of his widely accepted theory. Evolution is in our blood — simple as that. No, I’m not saying evolution is figuratively in our blood; I’m saying it’s literally in our blood (and DNA)! We are literally evolving every moment of our lives — through every minute of every hour, every hour of every day, every day of every year — without end. At every single instant in time, our cells are changing.

Throughout the course of evolution, we went from unicellular organisms to lobe-finned organisms (fish) to amphibians/reptiles (tetrapods) and then eventually all the way up to homo sapiens (or more commonly, humans). The next “key step in evolution,” according to Israeli neuroscientist Henry Markram, is centered upon “understanding the human brain.”

Neuroscientist Henry Markram talks about the Human Brain Project in this Ted Talk.

What is the Human Brain Project?

The Human Brain Project (HBP) is a ten-year scientific research project pioneered by neuroscientist Henry Markram. Formally initiated in 2013, the HBP effectively aims to develop a “detailed, realistic, computer model of the human brain” in order to develop key insights as to how neuronal circuitry may be linked to function.

Using supercomputers, scientists discovered that they were able to model and catalog certain regions of the brain and their inter-connectedness by simulating virtual columns of tissue known as neocortical columns. These cortical regions—which act as microscopic, three-dimensional ‘slices’ of the brain—are up to 2 mm tall and 1/2 mm wide, and scientists are able to fill these regions up with three-dimensional resconstructions of neurons.

A three-dimensionally reconstructed neocortical column of tissue resembling a microscopic region of the brain, courtesy of the Blue Brain Project.

In his Ted Talk, Markram claims that by understanding how groups of neurons fire and communicate with one another within certain regions throughout the brain, scientists will be able to better understand how all of these neuronal interactions affect regions on a more macroscopic scale.

This ambitious goal to replace animal experimentation and stimuli-based testing on nerve cells in the brain (neurons) would hypothetically allow scientists to simulate experiments digitally and improve understanding yet further. And with disease hopefully being the main motivation behind the matter in which this project advances, having a simulated model of the brain could allow scientists to understand the fundamental mechanics behind Parkinson’s, and even Alzheimer’s disease, further filling in the current gaps of knowledge that plague human understanding regarding these diseases.

Markram’s team believes that a working model would effectively enable researchers worldwide to make advancements all over the field of neuroscience and brain-related medicine, especially regarding Brain-Computer Interfaces (BCIs)/Brain-Machine Interfaces (BMIs). Additionally, being able to model such complex activity onto a digital simulation would help scientists understand not only how neurons interact with one another, but also how the culmination of this electrical activity produces voluntary action, memory, and other higher-brain functions as well. This, paired with artificial intelligence, is believed to be among the missing puzzle pieces to allow humans to understand our own brains and its extraordinarily complex wirings and functionalities.

Image from Stanford News Publication; Image Credit: Guo Mong

Why is the HBP Important?

According to a report conducted by the World Heath Organization, it is estimated that 1 in 4 people will undergo some sort of mental or neurological disorder in their lives. That’s almost 2 billion people. With the brain acting as the powerhouse to our body’s decision-making and interpreter of our experiences, it becomes evident why neurological disorder is such a prominent problem facing society today.

As Henry Markram states, “ without decisions: we cannot see; we cannot think; [and] we cannot feel.” He reasons that upon walking into a room, 99% of what you see does not actually come from the eyes; Rather, it is what you infer from the room upon which you are entering—i.e., the layout of the room; the walls; the windows; how the furniture is arranged; how the floors meet the walls, etc. And it is this prevalence of decision-making throughout the human brain which is so important to our evolutionary kind, that it’d be foolish to not dedicate time and energy into understanding and pinpointing the very fundamentals of what causes our own degradation, and ‘sickness.’

From an evolutionary standpoint

The increasing size of the neocortex across the evolution of primates is attributable to its fascinating success throughout this evolutionary process. It was so successful, in fact, that as brain matter continued to grow, primates eventually reached a point where they ran out of room in their skull for the brain to keep growing!

Alarming change in brain size across human evolution (Source: The Acquatic Human Ancestor Theory)

But it didn’t stop there. The brain continued growing, but now, folding in on itself, cramming every last bit of brain cells it can fit. Why? So it could store even more information and be able to perform even more complex functions.

That is, after all, the final product of evolution, according to Henry Markram, and it’s why simulating the brain to perfection (purely from a pattern, circuitry-based perspective, as all brains are unique in composition) is the holy grail of neuroscience, as it will ultimately, physically(!) transform the way we think. Not only that, but it will allow us to perceive reality through another lens—that is, a virtually realistic lens.

What next?

By developing a virtually, realistic, working simulation, scientists may even be able to simulate a ‘sick’ computer—i.e., a computer which is ‘sick’ with Parkinson’s disease, or at least a disease similar in manner. In this way, it is believed that by curing Parkinson’s disease in this “sick,” mathematically-based simulation, we will be able to devise newer, creative ways of replicate this cure in real life.


In summary, by using a mathematically simulated model, which requires a computationally complex and able super-computer, we would be able to integrate a miniaturized model based on physiological data that describes the anatomy of, and activity of the brain in particular regions. This cataloging of specific cortical regions of the brain would ultimately allow us to understand the brain better, at least from a mathematical standpoint, which may allow us to better understand diseases, such as Parkinson’s, as well as how we may be able to cure it (i.e., with the help of brain-related medical treatments like Brain-Machine Interfaces.)

This is the future of neuroscience.

Author’s Note:

For those that have made it this far, I really hope you enjoyed the article in its entirety. If you’re interested in learning about other cool content, don’t forget to give the article a clap or two and smash that follow button so you can catch more of my articles in the future 😉

If you have any questions, comments, disputes, or anything of the sort, do feel free to reach out to me either by email or LinkedIn.

My name is Oscar Petrov and I am a 16-year-old with leading interests in Quantum Mechanics, BCI applications, Space Technologies, Metaphysics, Philosophy, and the like. I’ll catch you later. 🐊



Oscar Petrov
Writer for

A curious manifestation of billions of exploding neurons. I like to think about brains + the universe. Also passionate about ethics, philosophy + human rights.