One of the possible applications of algebraic topology is in studying the brain, which is known to be very complicated.
If you can call understanding the dynamics of a virtual rat brain a real-world problem. In a multimillion-dollar supercomputer in a building on the same campus where Hess has spent 25 years stretching and shrinking geometric objects in her mind, lives one of the most detailed digital reconstructions of brain tissue ever built. Representing 55 distinct types of neurons and 36 million synapses all firing in a space the size of pinhead, the simulation is the brainchild of Henry Markram.
Markram and Hess met through a mutual researcher friend 12 years ago, right around the time Markram was launching Blue Brain—the Swiss institute’s ambitious bid to build a complete, simulated brain, starting with the rat. Over the next decade, as Markram began feeding terabytes of data into an IBM supercomputer and reconstructing a collection of neurons in the sensory cortex, he and Hess continued to meet and discuss how they might use her specialized knowledge to understand what he was creating. “It became clearer and clearer algebraic topology could help you see things you just can’t see with flat mathematics,” says Markram. But Hess didn’t officially join the project until 2015, when it met (and some would say failed) its first big public test.
In October of that year, Markram led an international team of neuroscientists in unveiling the first Blue Brain results: a simulation of 31,000 connected rat neurons that responded with waves of coordinated electricity in response to an artificial stimulus. The long awaited, 36-page paper published in Cell was not greeted as the unequivocal success Markram expected. Instead, it further polarized a research community already divided by the audacity of his prophesizing and the insane amount of money behind the project.
Two years before, the European Union had awarded Markram $1.3 billion to spend the next decade building a computerized human brain. But not long after, hundreds of EU scientists revolted against that initiative, the Human Brain Project. In the summer of 2015, they penned an open letter questioning the scientific value of the project and threatening to boycott unless it was reformed. Two independent reviews agreed with the critics, and the Human Brain Project downgraded Markram’s involvement. It was into this turbulent atmosphere that Blue Brain announced its modest progress on its bit of simulated rat cortex.
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