December 8, 2023

Billion Dollar Science: What the Human Brain Project Created

When the Human Brain Project began ten years ago as a pioneering research project within the European Union, the goal was to represent the entire human brain in a computer simulation. But this approach has been met with criticism. Then the project took a new direction and can now achieve many successes. Now it ends.

I started ten years ago Human Brain Project One of the most ambitious research projects in Europe. The project aims to build a complete computer simulation of the human brain. Although this was not achieved in the ten-year period, an extensive research platform and new therapeutic approaches were created.

The driving force behind the project initially was Henry Markram. The neuroscientist at the École Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne had already announced at a specialized conference in 2009 that within ten years it would be possible to mathematically simulate 86 billion neurons in the brain and a much larger number of synapses on a high-speed computer. He wanted to achieve this with the help of a massive collaborative project, the Human Brain Project (HBP).

Billions in financing and cash

Thanks to his charisma, he not only succeeded in gathering hundreds of scientists around him, but also in convincing the European Union Commission to choose the HBP project as one of two leading European research institutions. With the prospect of €1 billion in funding, the HBP began its work on 1 October 2013. Ultimately, it secured €406 million in EU funds and €201 million in contributions from institutions and Member States.

From the beginning, the project was heavily criticized. In 2014, hundreds of researchers complained In an open letter To the European Union that the HBP program is systematically focused on a very narrow scope. The accusation was also raised by the fact that the three-person HBP management team led by Markram planned to cancel a sub-project on the “cognitive architecture” of the brain that had been planned for the project phase that began in 2016 without replacing it.

In addition, the open letter criticized the fact that the distribution of funds was not transparent and that the HBP’s promises were unrealistic – accusations shared by neurobiologist Andreas Herz of the Ludwig Maximilian University in Munich: “Apart from the exaggerated delusions of the HBP, it is legitimate Hierarchically structured, a large-scale project with a single conceptual approach is doomed to failure, especially in neuroscience: the brain is too complex to be pulled off with a comb that cuts through everything.

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New management, new direction

After mediation with several mediators, including Herz, the Executive Committee led by Markram resigned from leadership in 2015 and the HBP Board assumed interim leadership. There was also a shift in content, as Herz describes: “From then on, the HBP project was understood primarily as an infrastructure project rather than as a research project.” However, this meant that there was no focus on a common subject area, Herz says. It misses a clear common thread in the direction of HBP projects without questioning the quality of individual efforts.

In fact, the project lists a number of impressive results. HBP researchers from Italy and Belgium have developed a method by which consciousness can be assessed with unprecedented sensitivity – important for people who do not respond after severe brain injury and are classified as unconscious.

Long list of achievements

The HBP group from France has also provided custom brain models for people with epilepsy who do not respond to medications. Such virtual models help identify the areas of the brain where seizures occur. According to HBP, a clinical study with 400 participants is currently underway and the goal is to provide surgeons with an accurate tool with which they can make better surgical decisions.

A Dutch research group from HPB has also manufactured a brain implant that electrically stimulates the visual cortex of the brain with high precision. A Swiss team has developed neural implants that stimulate the spinal cord to enable people with paraplegia to stand and walk again.

Other research groups are still seeing success in the fields of artificial intelligence and robotics. Last but not least, what was published in 2020 is noteworthy Julich Brain Atlas: A type of “Google Maps” through which maps of 200 areas of the human brain have been created in unprecedented detail. For this purpose, more than 24,000 thin slices of the brains of 23 deceased people were digitized and processed in three dimensions.

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Ebrains also serves as a place for the neuro community

In total, more than 500 researchers from more than 150 institutions in 19 countries published more than 3,000 papers over the 10-year period. In addition, more than 160 digital tools have been developed, which include thousands of datasets Abreen platform Find. This platform, which allows digital simulations and experiments, can now be described as a kind of beating heart of HBP.

“With Ebrains, something unique has been created – a platform developed and populated by hundreds of contributors and whose infrastructure is provided by five European supercomputer centers,” comments Petra Ritter from the Berlin Charité. “This provides a place for the neuroscience community to find essential services and thousands of tools and datasets.” They are also designed to be integrated: “This means that the digital atlases, but also the brain data sets and research results, are all prepared according to certain standards and are therefore reusable and linkable.”

Herz also explains: “In principle, EPRINCE has the potential to build a set of data and analysis and modeling tools that can be easily accessed, thus also enhancing the reproducibility of experiments. However, there are still many ways to go before EPRINCE can be accepted.” “The scientific community accepts and uses as a matter of course the obstacles that must be overcome.”

HBP program director Katrin Amunts, from the Institute of Neuroscience and Medicine at the Jülich Research Center, explains frequent criticisms of the project by saying that the simulation approach was initially exaggerated: This did not help HBP. “Most of my colleagues see a need for a broader approach to understanding the brain.”

In addition, the use of digital methods in neuroscience was unusual ten years ago. “What we did with the Human Brain Project was to advance digital brain research — not to replace the wet lab, but to complement it.” As a result, tools for brain research in particular have evolved.

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The problem of pilot projects

Ritter, an expert at Charité, believes that the challenge faced by pilot projects lies in the fact that they can be viewed from the outside as “closed clubs” that receive large amounts of funding over the years: “Democratic control mechanisms and processes must be well thought out for such Large projects. – Large-scale projects in order to ensure a sense of community inclusion and participation over a period of ten years.

Another challenge affecting the academic sector around the world is discrimination against women. “Women are still at a disadvantage when it comes to filling important positions and committees that have decision-making power,” says Ritter. “The Science and Infrastructure Council – that is, the committee that.. “Principle has developed the roadmap for the HBP – which consists of, say, two women and twelve men.” Ritter said that this issue needs more attention and action based on solid foundations.

Ebrains will continue in the role of Espri

By the way, Ebrains will continue to work – as part of the European Strategic Forum for Research Infrastructures Espri. Ebrains is on Espri’s roadmap in 2021. “As a result, research funding for this purpose will be available in the coming years, with no end in sight,” says Ritter. “And not as annual payments to Ebrains, but in the form of calls for proposals that scientists can submit with Ebrains as a partner.”

“Ibrains is, so to speak, the spearhead of the development of digitalization in the life sciences, which has certainly been accompanied by its birth pangs,” researcher Ritter sums up in Charité. However, these things should be expected when creating something new: “Sometimes wrong paths are taken that you have to come back.”