Neuroscience is a very complex science in itself. Perhaps the most daunting area of the brain challenge lies in saving and handling data. One cubic millimeter of brain tissue will generate approximately 2, 000 terabytes of electron-microscopy data using Lichtman and Denk’s new microscope, for example. Denk estimates that the entire mouse brain could produce 60 petabytes and a human brain about 200 exabytes. This volume of data will rival the overall digital content of today’s world, including Facebook and all the big data stores, says Lichtman.

This is just the start. Neuroscientists will eventually want to collect this sort of anatomical information for many human brains’ all of them unique’ and layer into it information about neuronal activity. They will must store and organize all these diverse data types to ensure that scientists can interface with them.

Europe’s Human Brain Project, which aims to provide some sort of brain simulation that researchers can interact with in real time, adds another level of demand. One of our challenges would be to develop computer languages that allow a supercomputer’s capacity to be used efficiently, says Jesus Labarta Mancho of the BarcelonaSupercomputingCenter in Spain, which is a partner with the Human Brain Project. Current supercomputers would be overwhelmed by experiments requiring various areas of the brain to be simulated in several fractions of a second.  Therefore the idea is to develop methods to allow the supercomputer to compress details about some brain areas, freeing up resources for computation on those that are relevant to the problem at hand.

Even assuming that the data could be neatly packaged, theorists will have to sort out what questions to ask of it. It is a chicken and egg situation, says theoretical neuroscientist Christian Machens of the Champalimaud Centre for the Unknown in Lisbon. Once we understand how the brain works, we’ll understand how to look at the data.

Theorists argue concerning the scale of the task in front of them; Kording is one of many who think it’ll be horrendous. It make’s Google’s search problems appear to be child’s play,  he says. There are approximately the same amount of neurons as Internet pages, but whereas Internet pages only link to a few others in a linear method, each neuron links to 1000s of others, and does so in a non-linear way.

However Partha Mitra, a biomathematician at Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory in {New York, thinks that the bigger challenge to knowing the mind will be sociological. Chasing after the workings of the brain just isn’t like chasing after the Higgs boson, where everyone goes after the same target, he says. It is about the community setting goals in a strategic manner and working towards them in a disciplined manner.

Setting those goals is consuming Newsome’s summer, just as he predicted. He is getting involved in a series of expert training courses to define the goals of the BRAIN Initiative and shaping a study on it that is expected in September. The report won’t promise to resolve all the challenges of the mind, he says, but it will set a course that, in the long term, just might.

We’ll eventually learn what every one of the twinkling of the neurons means with regards to our behavior, says Newsome, and that’s what really matters.


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