Can computers help unlock the mysteries of the brain?
This story was originally published by Sean O’Malley, Senior Media Relations Specialist and co-host of the CAMH Podcast, on the CAMH website.
There is perhaps no better way to illustrate how much the world of mental health research has changed in the 20-year history of CAMH than to look at the work being done today by Dr. Sean Hill’s team at the Krembil Centre for Neuroinformatics.
Consider what happened in 1997, the year before CAMH was created. That was when Deep Blue, a supercomputer created by IBM, defeated the world’s best chess player Gary Kasparov, marking a seminal event in the history of our relationship with technology. Today, the free chess app on my smart phone could probably beat Deep Blue.
For fans of the dystopian Terminator movie franchise, Deep Blue’s victory over Team Human signaled the beginning of the end for humanity as we know it.
But for young scientists like Dr. Hill, it raised the same question he had been asking since he tried his first PC at the age of eight: how much smarter could we make these machines? Could we make them smart enough to unlock the mysteries of the brains of the people who created them?
Yes, Dr. Hill began coding when he was eight, inspired by something called a TRS-80 that his older brother’s high school had purchased at a local Radio Shack and let his brother bring home to their family farm in rural Maine.
“In the winter when it was cold and dark…there was this whole new world you could discover in a box,” says Hill. “To me it was an opportunity to be incredibly creative.”
From a neuroscience perspective, the answer to 8-year-old Sean Hill’s question about computers and the brain increasingly appears to be ‘yes’ in a way we could only have imagined in CAMH’s early days. And that could have profound implications for how we diagnose and treat mental illness in the future.
“We saw in 2005 that by 2025, a supercomputer would be built that could simulate brain circuitry the scale of the human brain,” says Dr. Hill in the latest episode of the CAMH Podcast.
That prediction ended up being off but not by much – that supercomputer is now expected to be ready in the next two years.
Just in time for Dr. Hill to apply that technology breakthrough to his work at CAMH.
After devoting much of his career to this intersection between computers and neuroscience, most recently at the prestigious Blue Brain Project in Switzerland, what most excites Dr. Hill about coming to CAMH is that he can now apply the theoretical power of big data to the flesh and blood world of patient care.
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- Ontario Brain Institute’s Dr. Tom Mikkelson on the value of brain research
CAMH is one of Ontario’s 23 research hospitals that contribute to a healthier, wealthier, smarter province. Look for other RESEARCH SPOTLIGHT posts on our Healthier, Wealthier, Smarter blog or join the conversation about why health research matters for Ontario on Twitter, using the hashtag #onHWS.