When hackers want to break into a computer system, they often attempt to reverse engineer the operating software to better understand how it works (and, of course, its vulnerabilities). While researchers have for years taken a similar approach to better understanding parts of our gray matter, neuroscientists now say that within a decade it will be possible to create a digital model that replicates all functions of the human brain.

Though the brain has trillions of synapses, billions of neurons, millions of proteins, and thousands of genes, scientists have already begun to build detailed models of the mouse, rat, cat, primate and human brain, says Henry Markram, director of neuroscience and technology at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Lausanne, where he founded the Brain Mind Institute (BMI) in 2002. One of the keys to furthering this work is cooperation among scientists who are gathering together fragments of information collected over the past century about the how the brain works.

Such a model would reside on a supercomputer, allowing researchers to test theories about the brain and better understand how electrical-magnetic-chemical patterns in this mysterious organ convert into our perceptions. "We think we see with our eyes, but in fact most of what we 'see' is generated as a projection by your brain," Markram said in a statement. "So what are we actually looking at when we look at something ‘outside' of us?"

A better understanding of the brain could help doctors better treat brain diseases while reducing the number of animals required to conduct lab research. "There is no brain disease for which we really understand what has gone wrong in the processing, in the circuits, neurons or synapses," according to Markram, whose BMI Blue Brain Project has since 2005 been building simulations with the help of IBM supercomputers that reverse-engineer the brain at the molecular and cellular levels. Their ultimate goal is to model the entire brain.

Blue Brain isn't the only effort to reverse engineer the brain. The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), the U.S. Defense Department's research arm, last year gave the IBM Almaden Research Center $4.9 million for a project called "SyNAPSE," an attempt to reverse-engineer the brain's computational abilities to better understand its ability to sense, perceive, act, interact and understand different stimuli. Although the brain is still not well understood, "there is enough quantitative data for us to be able to begin putting together the pieces," Dharmendra Modha, IBM Almaden's director of cognitive computing, said earlier this year at an event celebrating the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers' (IEEE) 125th anniversary. Modha predicted that by 2018 computers will be able to simulate the workings of the human brain.

In Scientific American's 2008 Special Report on Robots, Ray Kurzweil, CEO of Kurzweil Technologies, Inc., proposed that the fastest way to reverse engineer the brain may be to study the real thing. One condemned killer has already allowed his brain and body to be scanned, Kurzweil points out, and all 15 billion bytes of the now-digitized inmate can be accessed on the National Library of Medicine's Web site. Another option, according to Kurzweil: microscopic robots (or "nanobots") injected into the bloodstream and programmed to explore every capillary, monitoring the brain's connections and neurotransmitter concentrations.

Image: Activity in the brain's neocortex is tightly controlled by inhibitory neurons shown here, which prevent epilepsy (© Blue Brain Project; Ecole Polytechnique Federale de Lausanne)