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Human Brain Project Faces Growing Skepticism from Neuroscientists


By Bio-IT World Staff

July 7, 2014 | This morning, the European Commission received an open letter signed by 154 European neuroscientists, expressing concern over the direction of the Human Brain Project (HBP) that was launched last year. The European Commission has committed an estimated €1.19 billion ($1.62 billion) over the next 10 years to the project, which currently involves 113 partner organizations and further outside collaborators, and is directed by Henry Markram of the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Lausanne. The central aim of the HBP is to create a computer simulation of the human brain, complete with tens of trillions of synaptic connections between tens of billions of neurons, each with its own pattern of genetic and electrical activity. The European Commission is currently discussing how to distribute the next round of HBP funding, which will include approximately $68 million for the "core project" and a similar amount for related research.

It is this funding round that has prompted the letter of concern, which criticizes the HBP for a perceived "lack of flexibility and openness," and more fundamentally, for not being "adequate to... further our understanding of the brain." All the neuroscientists who signed the letter have pledged not to apply for funding from the HBP unless a transparent review process reconsiders the basic management and priorities of the project. This pledge of mass non-participation in the HBP could be a blow to its ability to leverage and unify the pool of talent in European neuroscience, and would certainly reflect poorly on its legitimacy as an organizing effort to understand how the human brain functions. Most importantly, the letter protests that a huge portion of individual European countries' neuroscience funding would be bound to partnering projects with the HBP, and not available to researchers working outside the scope of that project.

The signatories' concerns with the HBP's mission are not plainly stated, and surely include a range of views. However, the HBP has already been dogged by questions about whether a computer model of the human brain is a feasible or even worthwhile goal. A model able to synthesize the sheer volume of data involved in a network like the brain would be a triumph of informatics and high-performance computing, but whether it would actually reveal function, or bring us closer to understanding which variations in the brain are associated with different mental and psychological traits, abilities and disorders, is very much in doubt. Implicit in the letter to the European Commission is a belief that neuroscientists who are more interested in a function-first approach to exploring the brain are not being given a voice in the largest project in their field, which is likely to shape public opinion of neuroscience.

"[T]he HBP has been controversial and divisive within the European neuroscience community from the beginning," the letter reads in part. "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."

Meanwhile, the U.S. has recently embarked on a parallel project, the BRAIN Initiative, for which the NIH has requested a $4.5 billion commitment from Congress over a 12-year period. The BRAIN Intitiative is not identical to the HBP — it does not include a single central model meant to be the focal point of all research under its umbrella — but it shares a basic desire to create a highly visible public face for neuroscience, much like the Human Genome Project did for genetics. Suspicions that central efforts like this could lead to public disillusionment with neuroscience if they fail to deliver results should resonate with the organizers of the BRAIN Initiative as well as the HBP.

The open letter to the European Commission, which can be read in full at www.neurofuture.eu, has continued to gather signatures since its publication this morning. At the time of writing, it has attracted 208 pledges.

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