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Trouble in Human Brain Project Heaven?

 Image courtesy: HBP

Image courtesy: HBP

A mere 18 months after its announcement, the Human Brain Project (HBP), a gargantuan 10-year, 1.2-billion scientific endeavor, has hit a snag.

Funded in large part by the European Union, HBP seeks to create a computer simulation of the entire human brain, including all its neural pathways. The project has the potential to forever change the way we understand human behavior, neurological disease, neuro-computing and more.

Excitement and support for the project swelled within the scientific community and beyond, but now more than 200 scientists (and counting) from some of the most renowned institutions in the world, including Oxford and the University College of London, are threatening to boycott it and its sister project, the U.S. Brain Initiative.

Chief among their complaints, opponents say the project’s narrow approach threatens to deviate away from its core purpose and lead to failure. According to their open letter to the European Commission:

Many laboratories refused to join the project when it was first submitted because of its focus on an overly narrow approach, leading to a significant risk that it would fail to meet its goals. Further attrition of members during the ramp-up phase added to this narrowing. 

In June, a Framework Proposal Agreement (FPA) for the second round of funding for the HBP was submitted. This, unfortunately, reflected an even further narrowing of goals and funding allocation, including the removal of an entire neuroscience subproject and the consequent deletion of 18 additional laboratories, as well as further withdrawals and the resignation of one member of the internal scientific advisory board.

In this context, we wish to express the view that the HBP is not on course and that the European Commission must take a very careful look at both the science and the management of the HBP before it is renewed. We strongly question whether the goals and implementation of the HBP are adequate to form the nucleus of the collaborative effort in Europe that will further our understanding of the brain.

The letter calls for greater transparency in the form of an independent and diverse review panel that can objectively assess the Human Brain Project’s progress and funding/resource allocation. If their recommendations are not implemented, the signees have pledged “not to apply for HBP partnering projects and will urge our colleagues to join us in this commitment.”

More than 1 billion in project funding remains on the line, and only time will tell how the European Commission and the HBP’s leading researchers will respond.

 

For a more in-depth look into the divisive and controversial issue, including responses from the project’s leader Henry Markram, PhD, as well as HBP supporters and detractors, check out these great pieces below:

1. European neuroscientists revolt against the E.U.'s Human Brain Project

2. Scientists threaten to boycott €1.2bn Human Brain Project

3. Neuroscientists attack 'off-course' human brain project

4. Wow, Will Leading Scientists Boycott the Humonguous Human Brain Project?

5. Scientists criticise EU's Human Brain Project

 

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Rest Stop: Q&A With Brain Research Foundation's Terre Constantin

 Terre Constantin, PhD, executive director of the Brain Research Foundation

Terre Constantin, PhD, executive director of the Brain Research Foundation

Over here at The Think Tank HQ, we are so lucky to come across, meet and converse with some of the brightest minds in science. One day, we thought to ourselves: These individuals' insight, experience and wisdom are worth sharing with the world! So here we are, kicking off a brand new series of Rest Stop blog posts, dedicated to picking the brains of all these fabulous people. For our inaugural Rest Stop, we take a minute to talk to Terre Constantin, PhD, executive director of the Brain Research Foundation, a non-profit organization dedicated to supporting neuroscience research. Check out her interview below!

What do you think about all this recent attention (and funding!) for brain research?

TC: I love all of the attention that has been in the news recently about brain research. Of course, that is what the Brain Research Foundation supports, so anything that gets neuroscience in the news is not only good for science but great for organizations like the BRF and Think Tank. The funding side is an interesting question. I assume that most people are thinking about the BRAIN Initiative, a $100 million commitment that the White House announced in April 2013. And while once again all funding is great for neuroscience, there were two keys points that were not really mentioned: 1. That private organizations are playing a huge part in this initiative (The Allen Institute for Brain Science and Howard Hughes Medical Institute). 2. That in May 2013, the government cut research funding by $1.55 BILLION. The take home message is that private funding is critical in advancing scientific discovery.  

What excites you most about current brain research around the world?

TC: The most exciting thing is all of the amazing advancements that are happening. The brain is unbelievably complex so cures for neurological diseases take time. But we are building the knowledge about the brain that will get us to those answers. I believe that treatments and eventual cures are definitely within our lifetime.

Do you have a role model in the STEM/brain research field? If so, who and why?

TC: It is going to sound like a lame, rehearsed answer but all researchers that stay in academia, relentlessly trying to understand the complexity of the brain. They work so hard, writing grants and scientific articles, running a lab. It is a very hard job. They are extremely dedicated to science, and I applaud them for it.

When did you know you wanted to become a scientist?

TC: I loved science and math throughout school but really became interested in science when I got to “see things up close and in action.” When we started to have science lab and do experiments in chemistry, physics, etc. I am a visual person so that solidified it. I knew I wanted to find out more. That is why The Think Tank is such a great concept. Bringing science to kids is key. Giving them a chance to have a hands-on interaction with science is not only interesting — it is fun. And science really can be FUN.

How do you think we can get kids, especially young girls and minorities, excited about exploration and discovery in STEM or neuroscience in particular?

TC: The sooner the better. We need to show kids how cool and fun science is. Many children just don’t have the opportunity to talk to or interact with a scientist. We need to make it accessible by bringing it to them. I think that coming in contact with a program, like The Think Tank, could be very beneficial. There are a lot of students’ lives and career paths that could be changed by understanding how important science, and because I am biased, how important neuroscience is.   

If you could share one cool/fun brain fact.... go!

TC: Perhaps a lot of people know this but it is always still amazing to me….the human brain has about 86 BILLION neurons. WOW!!!! That is all I can say.

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Mapping the Human Brain to Understand the Human Mind

brainmap.jpg

The Human Connectome Project and Brain Mapping

The pace at which technology has advanced in the past several decades is staggering. This is none more evident than in the field of medical imaging, which has paved the way to a new understanding of the human body, allowing healthcare professionals to deliver novel and cutting-edge therapies every day.

The Human Connectome Project, the first of its kind, seeks to use this kind of leading-edge technology to map the brain structure and its connectivity to superfine detail. Researchers hope this kind of brain mapping will help scientists answer the question: How do parts of the brain work together to produce human behaviors?

The project is a monumental undertaking. Backed by tens of millions of dollars, the project pulls together some of the brightest minds from leading institutions, including Harvard University, UCLA, Washington University, the University of Minnesota and the University of Oxford. Using state-of-the-art imaging technology and borrowing the time of some 1,200 volunteers, the researchers hope a map of the brain structure and its connectivity will lead them one step closer to understanding how these neural highways influence individual human behavior, intelligence and emotion.

Emerging Discoveries About the Human Brain

Okay, so we can all probably agree The Human Connectome Project and other neuroscience initiatives like it are cool. But what does it all mean? What implications do such expensive and time-intensive brain mapping projects have on our future? First of all, The Human Connectome Project will be open for public use, meaning clinicians, neuroscientists and other researchers the world over can use this treasure trove of information to exponentially propel our understanding of brain function and human behavior.

“One of the things we’re hoping comes out of this is to understand early indicators of when people might be starting to have having difficulties with brain connectivity,” Deanna Barch, PhD, said in an interview with The New York Times. “Some of it is basic science — trying to understand how the brain works and how the brain contributes to how we behave — but a lot of it has clinical application.”

This is huge. Think mild traumatic brain injuries, epilepsy, depression and other brain and psychological disorders and how we can intervene earlier.

 Simulating the Brain

Brain mapping and other neuroscience-specific ventures like The Human Connectome Project are revealing tons of new possibilities outside of the clinical world, too. The mainstream media is teeming with new and exciting developments that take advantage of our evolving understanding of the brain to enhance human capabilities. Check out some of the developments that have been recently exciting us here and here.

Although The Human Connectome Project is not yet complete, we’re excited to see how the fruits of this labor will advance neuroscience for years to come. Have you read about any other projects, studies or technologies that rely on a deeper understanding of the human brain? Comment below!

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