What Is The Human Brain Project?

(image: Greg Dunn – wired.com)

In 2013, the Human Brain Project (HBP) was granted €1-billion by the European Commission’s Future and Emerging Technologies program. Spearheaded by neuroscientist Henry Markram, this 10-year project aims to develop new technologies to simulate a computer model of the human brain to better understand it and to treat neurological diseases. In theory, this research initiative is ground-breaking as it tries to link together the disorganized research results in neuroscience into one consolidated model, which will provide new insight into the mysteries of the brain. However, over the last 3 years, the HBP has spiraled off track while receiving a multitude of severe criticisms regarding the project’s feasibility, practicality, and cost effectiveness.

Perhaps one of the largest controversies surrounding the HBP is in its justification for its €1-billion funding. Although it proposes a successful simulation of the human brain, many neuroscientists have spoken out about how this will do very little to enlighten undiscovered aspects of the brain. A digital brain reconstruction requires biological data, and this simulation will end up as just a project to organize results from already tested and discovered hypotheses. Furthermore, there is insufficient data right now to create a full reconstruction of the brain. The current state of this simulation initiative, named the Blue Brain Project, is detailed in one of Markram’s papers, and shows lacklustre results. Firstly, this research project focuses on the digital reconstruction of a singular neocortical column of the immature rat brain. In addition, it fails to recognize many important aspects of neuronal connectivity such as gap junctions, glial cells, plasticity, homeostasis, and more. Therefore, it becomes difficult to say that the simulations are nearing completion.

Aside from the unrealistic goals of the project, the HBP also suffers from severe governance issues that stems from Markram’s autocratic management. An independent committee was established to investigate and mediate these disputes, and on March 2015, they published their results. The report details comments on Henry Markram: “[he] is not only a member of all decision-making, executive and management bodies within the HBP, but also chairs them and supervises the administrative processes supporting these bodies. Furthermore, he is a member of all the advisory boards and reports to them at the same time. In addition, he appoints the members of the management team and leads the operational project management.” It is clear that the HBP management system requires an overhaul. Right now, because of the huge amount of funding backing this project, the HBP continues to run despite its poor outcomes, while smaller and more promising projects are prevented from realization.

That being said, this research initiative is taking measures to get back on track such that it becomes more organized and cost-effective. One step that they are taking is to narrow down the focus of the project, as the current goals are far-fetching and unrealistic. Rather than trying to simulate the brain and encompass broad aspects of neuroscience, the project will focus on developing new data tools and software that can be used in all aspects of neurological research. This approach will help the project become more organized and directed towards realistic goals. Furthermore, every group in the HBP will now have to reapply for funding every two years, including Markram. By doing this, the project now allows for authority to be distributed amongst several bodies for independent oversight. It is not certain whether these changes are enough to put the HBP fully back on track, but hopefully now the project will be able to focus on producing important and significant results to unveil the mysteries of the brain.

The HBP is not the only currently undergoing neuroscience megaproject initiative. The US government launched a large research project, the BRAIN Initiative, in the same year. The BRAIN Initiative aims to develop and apply new technologies towards the production of better images of neural connections. Unlike the HBP, this program is progressing much more smoothly. There exists one main difference between this and HBP— although the BRAIN Initiative is also packaged and sold as a megaproject, it is in fact a model of distributed innovation under a central funding source, which also encourages collaboration. Thus, rather than depending on a single scientific vision, there are multiple research teams competing for grants while leading projects into new and different branches of neuroscience. The competition factor also prevents similar ideas from overlapping, thus allowing the initiative to be more cost-effective. Without debilitating and non-transparent governance issues, the BRAIN Initiative can place its focus solely on scientific endeavours.

The final outcomes of both the HBP and the BRAIN Initiative are not yet clear. It is not certain whether these very expensive projects will produce long-lasting, worthwhile discoveries such as the Human Genome Project. However, with the HBP starting to get back on track, results and tools from these initiatives can complement each other, producing meaningful outcomes both in neuroscience and medicine. There will be many expectations in the next several years in these fields.

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NIMH “throws shade” on APA weeks before new DSM

Only a few weeks ago, blogs were heralding the impending arrival of the fifth edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-V), which provides standard language and criteria for mental illnesses and is currently used as the gold standard for psychiatric diagnoses. The DSM-V is scheduled to be released by the American Psychiatry Association on May 22nd, with some pretty interesting changes. This edition will include binge-eating, hypersexuality, and hoarding as new disorders, and Asperger’s Syndrome will be dropped as a diagnosis. Some herald the DSM-V as the newest “bible” of psychiatry. At the National Institute of Mental Health (US), it will likely be used as a paperweight.

According to Thomas Insel, the director of the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH), they have been developing their own classification system. They hope that theirs will better serve patients. As Insel wrote on his official NIMH blog: “Patients with mental disorders deserve better. NIMH has launched the Research Domain Criteria (RDoC) project to transform diagnosis by incorporating genetics, imaging, cognitive science, and other levels of information to lay the foundation for a new classification system.”

The RDoC project has been in the works since 2010, yet there still seem to be no specific definitions, only major categories. Two factors may have contributed to the NIMH’s decision to bring the RDoC back into the limelight: the release of the DSM-V in a few weeks, and Obama’s recently-announced BRAIN initiative. This initiative — in a country where Congress is perceived as trying to usurp scientists at federal grant agencies, a country that once claimed the infamous Todd Akin as a member of its House Committee on Science, Space and Technology* — has been welcomed as an oasis for neuroscientists. (More than a few people in my building at McGill have expressed excitement.) It’s no surprise that research psychiatrists might want to go for a share of it.

It seems apparent that this will have almost no immediate impact on practising psychiatrists. As Isnel remarks, “RDoC, for now, is a research framework, not a clinical tool. This is a decade-long project that is just beginning.” However, the long-term impact of disconnecting research from clinical practice is unclear. The entire point of the DSM, which Insel acknowledges, was to ensure that clinicians are all on the same page – literally and figuratively speaking. Will the RDoC cause a massive disconnect between clinical psychiatrists and their peers in academic research? Will this new dichotomy in classification systems prevent translation of research to clinical applications? To answer these questions, we’ll have to wait and see.

* For the record, I’m an American, so I’m allowed to take cheap pot-shots at Congress.