Rainer Goebel Rainer Goebel Sacha Ruland

Understanding the human brain

In Mind
Written by  Jolien Linssen Wednesday, 12 June 2013 00:00

"Our brain is a universe, and that universe I want to understand", says Rainer Goebel, professor of Cognitive Neuroscience at the Maastricht Faculty of Psychology and Neuroscience. Recently, the chances of his dream coming true have significantly increased. The reason? A green light and hence a €500 million grant for the Human Brain Project, which was announced last January as one of only two Future and Emerging Technologies (FET) Flagship projects funded by the European Commission. The aim of the project is to unravel the secrets of the brain, and it is up to Goebel to represent Maastricht University in the endeavour.

Upon meeting Goebel in the brand new building housing the Department of Cognitive Neuroscience, it becomes clear that he is well equipped for this task. As part of the Brains Unlimited Project, Maastricht recently acquired a 9.4 Tesla scanner, the world's most powerful magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) machine. "There are only four of these scanners in the world", says Goebel. "Not many institutes can compete with the high level of research we can do at 7 and 9.4 Tesla. At the moment I can’t imagine a place where I could do the same things as I’m doing here."

These 'things' include the development of computer simulations of the brain – an important part of the research for which Goebel received the prestigious European Research Council (ERC) Advanced Grant in 2010. Not coincidentally, this is what the Human Brain Project is all about. Bringing together the efforts of 86 research institutes from Europe and around the world, the project aims to build the most accurate computer model of the human brain ever produced. In doing so it addresses one of the biggest challenges of modern science and simultaneously touches upon the very core of our being. Because, in the words of Goebel: "We are our brain."

Revolutionary

The attempt in itself is nothing short of revolutionary. "Until now, our existing brain models have only been able to represent tiny parts of the brain, like language or vision", says Goebel. "They’re what you would call toy models: too simplistic to be really interesting. Because what makes the brain smart is not a single neuron but the complexity of the interaction between billions of neurons."

The Human Brain Project thus strives to create a model which is as complex as the human brain itself. "If we really want to understand how the brain works, we need to comprehend how neurons interact and create something smart together. How do they bring forth thoughts, emotions and language? Where do things like persistence, attention and planning come from? How can diseases alter the brain, and what role do medications play in these processes?"

The importance of answering these questions can hardly be overestimated. But is the goal, in addition to being ambitious, also realistic? "That depends on your criteria for success", says Goebel. "We can only know if a complex model of the full brain provides real insight into how the brain works after we’ve tried to make it. But because no single lab in the world has the power to model the whole brain, I’m convinced that the integration of our knowledge into one model is already a good thing in itself. The Human Brain Project will help us make substantial progress in our understanding of the brain. And it will push different research areas to the next level."

Computer

These areas include the field of computing, as it is clear that only an enormous supercomputer will be able to simulate the neuronal activity of a human brain. Such a computer alone, however, is not enough. "Even though it has the possibility to simulate billions of neurons and their interactions, it’s still quite different from a thinking and learning human being. Our brain is not a tabula rasa at birth; instead, we’re constantly learning new knowledge over the course of our lives, and we’ve incorporated a lot of implicit knowledge from evolution. Think of a baby that smiles when it looks at something like a face. Babies do this from the moment they’re born."

In the absence of this evolutionary knowledge, the brain model is "just a machine without worldly knowledge, nothing more". To solve this problem, content from real mind and brain research will be incorporated into the system. Goebel has received a €1.2 million grant to carry out this work for the Human Brain Project. "By measuring real brains in our high-field MRI scanners, we can check whether the predictions made by the simulations actually correspond with reality", he says. "If not, the model needs to be changed and improved. All in all, it’s very exciting to be involved in such an enormous project."

 
Rainer Goebel (1964) studied psychology and computer science in Marburg and completed his PhD at the Technical University of Braunschweig, Germany. He has been professor of Cognitive Neuroscience at the Maastricht Faculty of Psychology and Neuroscience since January 2000. He was appointed director of the Maastricht Brain Imaging Centre in 2005 and team leader of the Neuromodeling and Neuroimaging group at the Netherlands Institute for Neuroscience in 2008. Goebel is internationally recognised for inventing and developing the software package BrainVoyager, one of the standard software packages for advanced data analysis in neuroimaging.

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