The past, present and future of The Human Brain Project

By Samrah Siddiqi

Fleeting interactions between approximately 86 billion neurons in the brain are responsible for the capacity of higher consciousness in humans which is like none other observed in the animal kingdom (Voytek, 2013; The Independent, 2014) The brain is the most complex organ in the human body and has perplexed many individuals such as Professor Sir Robin Murray who argues that “we won’t be able to understand the brain” (BBC News, 2012). However, the pressing need to develop numerous therapies for neurodegenerative diseases and developmental disorders has proven that the mysterious brain is too important to be left uninvestigated. To tackle this pessimism and attempt to decode the brain’s complexity, on July 22, 2009 neuroscientist Henry Markram declared that he was going to simulate the human brain in a computer – what is now known as the Human Brain Project (HBP) (Yong, 2019).

Markram’s goal was to mimic the complexity of the brain, from the electrical activity along its constituent neurons to the switching on and off of its genes, in order to create an exact simulation of the organ (Yong, 2019). This collaborative effort between neuroscientists all over the world would be used to enhance our understanding of the human brain and to use this acquired knowledge to advance medicine and technology (Amunts et al., 2019). A 10 year horizon was given to the HBP and in order to ensure this pioneering science was a success, the European Commission awarded Markram a whopping 1 billion euro grant for his initiative in 2013. Needless to say, the stakes were high. 

The HBP is a large-scale, interdisciplinary project consisting of 12 subprojects ranging from areas such as mouse brain organisation to neurorobotics (Amunts et al., 2019). It is also one of the first initiatives worldwide which has dedicated a subproject primarily to ethics, enabling the project to involve neuroethical analyses (Amunts et al., 2019). The project adopts a multiscale approach which upscales ‘experiments at the molecular, subcellular, and cellular levels and at the level of neuronal populations and macroscopic regions, up to large-scale networks and behaviour’ (Amunts et al., 2019). This approach has proved particularly useful in studies researching mouse brain organisation as data at the cellular and subcellular levels has been used to create large-scale models and simulations of rodents. One study determined the anatomical position of recording electrodes in the rat brain by referring to histological sections on a three-dimensional reference atlas (Bjerke et al., 2020). Using a database of the neural connections of the rat hippocampal system, the scientists were able to associate certain behavioural characteristics in rodents to exact anatomical locations, highlighting the ease with which scientists are able to review their research data using reference atlases as part of the HBP. In addition to reference atlases for rodents, the HBP has extended its efforts to include reference atlases for the human brain, including ‘BigBrain’ (Amunts et al., 2013). This novel human brain mapping approach is an indispensable tool which has led to a significant number of breakthroughs (Amunts et al., 2019). These include a new generation of artificial intelligence applications, theoretical models to map the organisation of the brain and notable advances in the understanding of the neural basis for phenomena such as perception, spatial memory, sleep and more (Amunts et al., 2019). This highlights the important role integration of neuroscience and information and communication technology (ICT) plays in the development of our understanding of the highly complex neural networks in the brain.

The HBP hasn’t had a smooth sailing journey to say the least. As expected, with such a large task comes challenges and difficulties. Markram’s bold statement and ambitious timeline was met with a lot of scepticism in a world where technology was not nearly as advanced as it is today. Critics thought it was unrealistic that Markram proposed to decipher the human brain in merely a decade, especially when it took around 20 years to create the much smaller ‘Connectome’ – a  map of all 302 neurons of the roundworm C. elegans (Jabr, 2012). Additionally, since the HBP’s efforts weren’t driven by any particular research questions it was unclear to many scientists what the project would actually accomplish. This also raised 

issues regarding funding as a multitude of potentially more beneficial studies could have been funded with the money put towards the HBP. In 2014, a collective of 800 neuroscientists sent an open letter to the European Commission arguing that “the HBP is not a well-conceived or implemented project and that it is ill suited to be the centrepiece of European neuroscience.”  As a result, a year later the HBP was modified to focus “on a smaller number of properly prioritised activities”. – what is now known as Ebrains (Yong, 2019).

The 1 billion euro project has entered its final 3 years so the current platform Ebrains is searching for funding for after 2023 (Naujokaityte, 2020).The project’s new direction hopes to continue to offer a unique, rapidly advancing open science platform for brain science. Even though the HBP has faced lots of controversy, there is no doubt that the scientific advancements it has facilitated are of great significance – helping us to understand the brain’s role in dysfunction and disease and the onset of neural applications to artificial intelligence. Henry Markram’s bold claim 11 years ago has led to a lasting legacy in the field of neuroscience (Theil, 2015). 

References:

Amunts, K., Lepage, C., Borgeat, L., Mohlberg, H., Dicksneid, I., Rousseau, M.-E., Bludau, S., Bazin, P.-L., Lewis, L. B., Oros-Peusquens, A.-M., Shah, N. J., Lipper, T., Zilles, K. & Evans, A. C. (2013) BigBrain: An Ultrahigh-Resolution 3D Human Brain Model. Science. 340(6139), 1472-1475. Available from: doi: 10.1126/science.1235381 

Amunts, K., Knoll, A. C., Lippert, T., Pennartz, C. M. A., Ryvlin, P., Destexhe, A., Jirsa, V. K., D’Angelo, E. & Bjaalie, J. G. (2019) The Human Brain Project—Synergy between neuroscience, computing, informatics, and brain-inspired technologies. PLOS Biology. Available from: https://journals.plos.org/plosbiology/article/file?id=10.1371/journal.pbio.3000344&type=printable [Accessed 22nd November 2020]

BBC News (2012) The brain is the ‘most complex thing in the universe’ Available from: https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-scotland-18233409 [Accessed 22nd November 2020]

Bjerke, I.E., Øvsthus, M., Papp, E. A., Yates, S. C., Silvestri, L., Fiorilli, J., Pennartz, C. M. A., Pavone, F. S., Puchades, M. A., Leergaard, T. B. & Bjaalie, J. G. (2020) Data integration through brain atlasing: Human Brain Project tools and strategies. European Psychiatry. Vol 50, 70-76. Available from: doi: https://doi.org/10.1016/j.eurpsy.2018.02.004 

Jabr, F. (2012) The Connectome Debate: Is Mapping the Mind of a Worm Worth It? Available from: https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/c-elegans-connectome/ [Accessed 22nd November 2020]

Naujokaityte, G. (2020) Rethink for Human Brain Project as it enters the final phase. Available from: https://sciencebusiness.net/news/rethink-human-brain-project-it-enters-final-phase [Accessed 22nd November 2020]

The Independent (2014) The human brain is the most complex structure in the universe. Let’s do all we can to unravel its mysteries. Available from: https://www.independent.co.uk/voices/editorials/human-brain-most-complex-structure-universe-let-s-do-all-we-can-unravel-its-mysteries-9233125.html [Accessed 22nd November 2020]

Theil, S. (2015) Why the Human Brain Project Went Wrong – and How to Fix It. Available from: https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/why-the-human-brain-project-went-wrong-and-how-to-fix-it/ [Accessed 22nd November 2020] 

Voytek B. (2013) Are There Really as Many Neurons in the Human Brain as Stars in the Milky Way? Available from: https://www.nature.com/scitable/blog/brain-metrics/are_there_really_as_many/ [Accessed 22nd November 2020]

Yong, E. (2019) The Human Brain Project Hasn’t Lived Up to Its Promise. Available from: https://www.theatlantic.com/science/archive/2019/07/ten-years-human-brain-project-simulation-markram-ted-talk/594493/ [Accessed 22nd November 2020] 

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