An Almost Happy First Birthday

(October 10th, 2014) It hasn’t been an easy ride for the Human Brain Project in its first year of research. An open letter and the Swiss vote caused the ambitious project to totter. At the 4th Human Brain Project Annual Summit, Henry Markram and Co. talked about HBP’s current state of affairs.

The Human Brain Project, HBP, the European flagship project worth 1.2 billion euros, is growing up. Recently, it celebrated its first birthday with a Summit held at the University of Heidelberg. But as we all know growing up comes with certain pains. And it’s the parents’ chief task to soothe their baby’s suffering. With a gentle voice, Henry Markram, HBP’s founder, thus, cajoled the audience into continuing to believe in the project that will “help the world understand the brain”.

“Not all is rosy,” he admitted, referring to the open letter published in July and signed by quite a few well-known neuroscientists, including the newly minted nobelists, Edvard and May-Britt Moser. But things have been “taken very seriously” and have been or will be addressed. Better communication and calling in a mediator are just two of many actions taken. Summit participant and new partner in the HBP subproject Cognitive Architectures, Satu Palva from the University of Helsinki is optimistic, “Yes, it’s a big issue right now in our field of Cognitive Architectures. (…) It doesn’t do any good for this project but I hope it will be solved. And right now, it seems positive,” she told Lab Times.

Besides the open letter, Swiss people threw a “second curve ball” at HBP, with their vote Against Mass Immigration and the resultant exclusion of Switzerland from several EU funding programmes. But Markram reassured that “Switzerland is still a small part of Europe” and, hence, the vote won’t have a big impact on HBP.

But the Summit also offered many opportunities to proudly pat one another on the back and congratulate on the many milestones already achieved. “I’m happy to see it come together,” Markram said. “Fantastic progress” has been made and “incredible data” has been created. Coming together once a year also gives HBP partners the chance to see “what the different subprojects are doing, what the collaboration is like between them and what we can achieve based on these subprojects”, Satu Palva mentioned.

In his talk, Markram listed a few already accomplished achievements. Most of them are still in the developmental or test phase, though. For instance, initial studies using single cell transcriptomics (part of SP1) suggest that a mouse neuron expresses approximately 4,000 genes. The Brain Simulation Platform (SP6), “allowing researchers to reconstruct biologically detailed models of the brain and to simulate the behaviour of the models on supercomputers”, will be released in mid-2015. And the Neurorobotics working groups (SP10) developed a first prototype of a virtual mouse body model. Other achievements are more concrete, literally. The European Institute for Theoretical Neuroscience, EITN, was set up practically overnight in the centre of Paris as part of SP4. Created in March this year, it officially opened in September and is now working on simplified neuron models.

Impressed by the Human Brain Project’s goals and ambitions and the absolute necessity to understand our thinking organ much better than we do now, several other countries plan to launch their own brain projects. Japan, for instance, represented at the Summit by Hideyuki Okano from Keio University, is hot on HBP’s heels with the Brain Mapping by Integrated Neurotechnologies for Disease Studies, or much catchier, Brain/MINDS project. In contrast to HBP, the Japanese focus on the marmoset brain, an “excellent translational model” for human brain science, as one audience member attested. But the Japanese don’t want to do it alone, “We wish to keep in touch with you,” Okano said.

China’s Qingming Luo from the Britton Chance Center in Wuhan talked about a possible China Brain Project, addressing the same old questions and issues: how does the brain work, what new tools can be developed to get better insight. But with a Chinese twist: neuroscientists in China also want to get behind the mechanism of action in Traditional Chinese Medicine. “We know it works, we just don’t know how,” Luo said.

And finally, there could be AusBrain, the Australian brain initiative. But “we are a little bit stuck”, Robert Williamson from the University of Melbourne, confessed. It’s not a matter of dedicated buildings, instruments or expertise – “we have enough” - but it’s a lack of money. Only in January next year, will the Australian government set up the Medical Research Future Fund with a budget of A$ 20 billion (€ 15 billion). How much of this money actually gets allocated to neuroscience remains to be seen.

At least in Europe, funding is of little concern for the Human Brain Project. The European Commission stands firmly behind the project, at least for the next nine years. Thierry van der Pyl, Director of Excellence in Science at the European Commission, confirmed that the EC is “committed to make HBP a success story”. Also Satu Palva is convinced that HBP’s future is bright but “it needs to be strictly planned” she argues and adds, “Of course, it won’t solve the whole issue of how the brain works, that’s not going to happen, but it will hopefully be a success.”

Having kissed the pains away, the baby is now happily lying in its cradle. And with a an optimistic smile, Henry Markram muses, “Let’s see what we come up with in Year 2.”

Kathleen Gransalke

Image: HBP

Last Changes: 11.18.2014