The holy grail for neuroscience is to understand the design of the neocortical column. It will help us understand not just the brain, but perhaps physical reality. Understanding the structures that make it up is extremely difficult, because beyond just cataloging the parts, you have to figure out how they actually work -- and then build realistic digital models.
From the Guardian:
Markram is working to develop a model of the human brain because it is a key step to our understanding of the neo-cortex, and scientists cannot continue doing animal experimentation forever. It is key to understanding diseases and disorders, including Alzheimer's and autism.
99% of what we "see" is actually our brain inferring things about our surroundings, and he believes that a model of the brain will help us understand reality by understanding this fundamental internal reality.
Through intense study of the neo-cortex, not only the billions of neurons but just as importantly the rules of communications and connectivity, they have been able to build a three dimensional model of the neo-cortex. They have coded the rules that neurons use as a basis for communication with each other.
No two neurons are the same. They intersect in a complex network, creating what Markram described as the fabric of the brain. While the neurons are all different, the neurons fit together in a similar pattern in every human brain.
On a small scale, they now have the equations to simulate neurons and the electro-chemical reactions between them. It is a complex computer simulation. That in itself is a complex computer simulation. It is too difficult to simulate the connections between multiple neurons in silicon, Markram said.
To simulate a single neuron takes the computing power equivalent of a laptop. To build even a small model of the brain, they need a lot of laptops, about 10,000. But using an IBM supercomputer, "we can take the magic carpet for a ride".
They are now able to stimulate this simulated brain with images. If they show the brain a rose, what happens? "We can now follow the energy. We saw these ghostly electrical columns in the neo-cortex," Markram wrote.
They still have a lot more to do with these theories, but he [Markram] said,
"It is not impossible to build a brain, and if we succeed, in 10 years we will send a hologram to talk to you".