Researchers are hoping that the world’s largest simulated brain — known as Spaun — will be used to test new drugs that lead to breakthrough treatments for neurological disorders such as Parkinson’s, Huntington’s, and Alzheimer’s disease.
Terrence Stewart, Ph.D., a postdoctoral researcher with the Centre for Theoretical Neuroscience at Canada’s University of Waterloo and project manager for Spaun, will speak to an audience during the American Association for the Advancement of Science annual meeting in Chicago about the advantages of using whole-brain simulation to help develop new treatments.
“Our hope is that you could try out different possible treatments quickly to see how the brain reacts and how each one changes behavior before testing them in people,” said Stewart.
“Our brain model offers a new way to test treatments. For Alzheimer’s disease or a stroke that causes memory loss, we could see how a new drug affects the firing pattern of individual brain cells and measure how it changes brain performance on memory tests before trying it on people.”
Spaun is able to see, remember, think, and write with a mechanical arm. It also allows researchers to study and understand how different neurological diseases damage individual cells and affect the behavior of the whole brain.
The researchers have already used Spaun to study Parkinson’s and Huntington’s diseases. Next, they would like to simulate Alzheimer’s disease once Spaun is given a hippocampus — the brain region involved in forming new memories.
Spaun is considered closer to the human brain than other computer brain models because it makes mistakes and loses its abilities like real people. For example, to simulate the mental decline associated with aging, the researchers killed off neurons and began to observe Spaun gradually forget numbers during a memory test.
To mimic the movement problems common in Huntington’s disease, Stewart damaged parts of the simulated brain affected by those conditions.
“We showed that errors made in reaching behavior seen in people with those disorders correspond to the errors made by our brain model when neurons in the affected brain regions are damaged,” he said.