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.

Resources for further reading:



First Language Shapes Later Processing Patterns In The Brain


By Leanne Louie

Whether you still speak it or not, your first language dictates the way your brain processes languages learned later in life.

In a paper published in Nature Communications in early December, researchers at McGill and the Montreal Neurological Institute showed that children with different first languages had differing brain activation when performing a French language task. Of the three groups of children tested, one group had learned only French since birth. Another had known Chinese as their first language before adoption into French families, whereupon they learned only French and forgot their Chinese. The final group had Chinese as their first language, learning French as a second language around the same time as the adopted children, but retaining their Chinese. Using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI), the researchers observed the brains of the children while they identified French pseudo-words, such as vapagne and chansette. Although all groups performed the task equally well, they had differing patterns of brain activation throughout it. The French speakers with no exposure to Chinese had activation in the brain areas normally associated with the processing of language-associated sounds (most prominently, the left inferior frontal gyrus and anterior insula). However, in the brains of the children who had learned Chinese as their first language, additional areas of the brain were activated (particularly the right middle frontal gyrus, left medial frontal cortex, and bilateral superior temporal gyrus), regardless of whether the first language was still spoken.

“These results suggest that exposure to a language early in life affects how the brain processes other languages that you learn later on, even if you stop using that early language,” explained Lara Pierce, a doctoral student at McGill and the first author on the paper. Scientists have long known that early childhood experiences such as being read to and hearing languages can shape long-term brain architecture. However, although early events can dictate neural development, the brain remains an adaptable and plastic organ, able to adjust to what it needs to learn later in life despite its underlying circuitry. Such is made obvious from the high proficiency of all of the children in French, each of the three groups performing the language task with great accuracy despite their different linguistic backgrounds. Thus, it’s clear that having a different first language doesn’t impede the ability to learn a second language— but early language experiences do influence the way the brain might learn and process future languages.

Such research contributes to a growing understanding of both neural development and neuroplasticity, demonstrating the influence that experience and environment have upon the brain. In the future, the scientists are interested in looking more in depth at the influence of early experiences on later language learning. One question of interest is how the results would differ if a first language more similar to French than Chinese, such as English, were to be tested. This would help to clarify how different elements of first languages might influence the learning of second languages. While it provides answers, this study also raises many new questions, paving new paths for future research on the brain.

To read the full article in Nature Communications: http://www.nature.com/ncomms/2015/151201/ncomms10073/full/ncomms10073.html

Photo Credit: Quinn Dombrowski – https://www.flickr.com/photos/quinnanya/16490650298

The Cognitive Neuroscience of Deception

Truth about lies, the highest governing process

Ji Yun Shin

We have probably encountered many troubling scenarios in life where we have felt the urge to lie. Afterwards, we might be so afraid to disclose our lies that we experience enormous guilt. On the other hand, however, intentional lying can sometimes be beneficial in allowing us to attain our goals with less effort. In these particular cases, we are able to justify lying, and thus free ourselves from any discomfort that accompanies mistruth.

Generally, people exhibit great interest in learning various tricks to detect lies in social settings, as evidenced by the countless articles and books available that discuss the relationship between social cues and deception.. However, these resources do not fully describe the brain mechanisms that are involved in the fabrication of lies. In fact, studies have shown that the brain requires higher cognitive function when involved in deception than in truth.

In the U.S. and Indian markets, the commercial lie detector is being widely advertised without much scientific basis. While often cited in some legal cases, lie detector evidence is outright refused in others because it can be unreliable. It is hard to overcome the limitations of lie detection technology. While the efficacy of the lie detector is an often heated, controversial debate in the field of neuroscience, recent studies have been reporting very amusing results in which patterns of brain activity have been correlated with deception.

In the presence of new imaging technology, scientists have come to reconstruct the definition of deception. DePaulo et al. described deception as a deliberate attempt to mislead others through literal truths. A review done by Spence et al. also introduced perspectives borne from fMRI techniques that are being used to measure deception in the brain, demonstrating the importance of mistruth to human social interactions. According to this study, the delivery of untruthful information is considered to be harmless in many social circumstances, acting as a foundation for humans to achieve various purposes. The study also showed that participating in deception is ideal for a child at the age of 3 or 4, so that they may better learn self-control. In more detail, learning self-control at an early age is a prosperous endeavor; Spence et al. claim romantic relationships can be facilitated by deception. As a result, some social interaction disorders may be associated with a lack of this essential skill. Although Spence et al. addresses the danger of habitual lying, they emphasize that when used in moderation, deception is key to human interaction in a social context.

It has also been reported that the theory of mind is absolutely necessary for deliberate deception. In other words, one must have an understanding of the intentions of another in order to deceive others effectively. Consequently, it is assumed that if a person lies despite lacking a thorough theory of mind, it can be attributed to a cognitive impairment. The formulation of lies is viewed as an additional cognitive process that requires prefrontal executive systems. Deception, which involves withholding information, requires ‘inhibition’. According to Ford’s study in 1995, the orbitofrontal cortex (OFC) is involved in the process. Patients with orbitofrontal lesions showed a tendency to refrain from lying, in that they could not successfully refrain from revealing truthful responses at inappropriate times. Also, in non-human primates with lesions in this brain area, deficits in conditional responses were observed. Another area that is also known to be involved in response inhibition (Spence et al.) is the ventral prefrontal cortex (VLPFC). Furthermore, increased activity in the PFC and anterior cingulate gyrus areas, which are mostly known to be responsible for executive functions such as decision making, was observed when participants were made to lie, suggesting that deception was incorporated in the executive process. Although in no way singularly conclusive, and having its own flaws in experimental design (For instance, only having, ‘yes’ or ‘no’, as possible responses), overall, this study revealed important information about the physiology of deception through modern imaging techniques.

Finally, recent improvements in the quality of fMRI studies have allowed us to gain a more comprehensive understanding of the nature of deception in human cognition. We suppress truthful information when we choose to deceive others for social benefit or otherwise, suggesting higher response inhibition. When constructing any social contextual responses, we must consider our intentions through the lens of our human cognition.

DePaulo, B. M., Lindsay, J. J., Malone, B. E., Muhlenbruck, L., Charlton, K., & Cooper, H.(2003). Cues to deception. Psychological bulletin, 129(1), 74.
Spence, S. A., Hunter, M. D., Farrow, T. F., Green, R. D., Leung, D. H., Hughes, C. J., &Ganesan, V. (2004). A cognitive neurobiological account of deception: evidence fromfunctional neuroimaging. Philos Trans R Soc Lond B Biol Sci, 359(1451), 1755-1762.
Ford, C. V., & Price, J. S. (1996). Lies!, lies!!, lies!!!: The psychology of deceit (p. 118).Washington, DC: American Psychiatric Press.

[Profile] Haider Riaz, Microstimulations to the Middle Temporal Area and its Effect on the Generation of Microsaccades

When Haider Raiz arrived at McGill, he wasn’t sure if he was going to be involved in research. Any doubt he had has clearly been removed; this year he will be publishing his second article in the McGill Science Undergraduate Research Journal (MSURJ) Riaz published a biophysics paper later year, and his fascination with groundbreaking discoveries in physics sparked a desire to conduct research of his own. “I was in physics and started reading about people like Feynman and other notable physicists… I thought their curiosity and intuition for understanding certain topics was cool,” Riaz explained. This, in combination with his preexisting interest in biology, drew him toward the field of biophysics. “[In the Resiner Lab,] we looked at transverse fluctuation of a DNA polymer in a nano pit system. Specifically, DNA that was trapped between two slits in this system and we investigated models that would describe the fluctuations of the trapped DNA.”

Riaz found another research opportunity after his first PHGY 209 lecture, when Professor Erik Cook announced that he was looking for undergraduates to work in his lab. After completing coding courses to meet the prerequisites to work in Cook’s lab, he began research in the Department of Physiology, ultimately completing a 396 research project course. His 396 project was to analyze the strategy that the brain employs when forming perception by listening to neurons across two separate sensory patches. The purpose of his experiment was “[…to determine if] the brain listens to all neurons equally, if it is weighted towards more reliable neurons, towards the neurons that have the tightest link to behaviour, the neurons that are correlated with neurons from the other sensory pools, or some combination of this.”

As the semester-long project was drawing to a close, Cook asked him if he would like to continue working on the project over the summer. Riaz accepted, and continued his work on microsaccade analysis – which led to his latest publication. Riaz notes that his data is not only valuable on its own: “The microsaccade analysis is only one component of the entire experiment. The primary component is to see whether microstimulating neurons in the MT area can you cause perception in the monkey. And then can you ultimately influence behavior.”

Data was collected by using microelectrodes implanted into the MT area of the brain. Microstimulation was then applied to explore the neural systems that control visual fixation and microssaccades. The experimental design started with two random dot motion patches and a monkey releasing a lever based on the coherence of the random dot motion matches. The monkey’s eye movements were simultaneously recorded using a camera and microelectrodes were used to see if microstimulation lead to any effects in perception. Riaz noted that collecting the data was very difficult – it took almost a year and a half to get the data he needed!  However, the work paid off, and Riaz got positive results. In this case, positive results meant that there were more microsaccades on trials with microstimulation. Riaz described the challenge in analyzing the results from the experiment, “My professor had told me to do an analysis called a spike triggered average. The peer reviewers told me to call it a microsaccades triggered average because of the use of microsaccades instead of spikes, and they were right.” He continued to explain his analysis by coming to a conclusion of wider significance, “our results showed that an increase in microsaccade is caused by a microstimuation. This means that somewhere back in time, there should be a temporal link between the microstimulation and the microsaccade.” Although the microsaccade-triggered average showed this link, the low level of significance worries Riaz. With a statistically-stronger result, Riaz feels that the research would receive more attention and others would start to replicate it. Beyond this, others would perform further studies about the optimal level of microstimulation that would cause more microsaccades. However, he concluded by saying that “the results do show an increase and it can be replicated to see if there is a temporal link.”

MSURJ owes a Ph.D. student thanks for directing Riaz to the journal as a place to publish his work. He noted, “When I first started research, I was collaborating with a PhD student. I didn’t know where to publish and he suggested MSURJ as an excellent publication. I have found the feedback from the editorial staff and the peer-reviewers to be especially helpful and detailed.”

This summer, Riaz plans to further explore one of his diverse interests in the Ruthazer lab at the McConnell Brain Imaging Centre. There, he will be porting an image de-noising algorithm – which is currently written in MATLAB, with C++ components compiled in Mex – over to Java for integration into ImageJ as a plug-in. Clearly, this will not be the last publication that Riaz is involved in. Riaz has clearly become involved with research at McGill – and perhaps will continue with research beyond the Roddick Gates.

With files from Sapan Patel

You can read Riaz’s article here*.

*Links to the original research articles will be available as soon as the journal is uploaded online at msurj.mcgill.ca 

Start your school year at one of these science events in September!

Photo of the McGill University Arts Building (Wikimedia user Beltz / Wikimedia Commons)

Soup and Science @ the Redpath Museum: the 16th edition of this Faculty of Science tradition will be held September 9-13th at 11:30 a.m.

Freaky Friday: Unicorns – Myth and Reality! @ the Redpath Museum: Emily Bamforth and Eliza Rosenberg will be giving a presentation about unicorns (awesome!) on September 27th at 5:00 p.m., which will be followed by a movie.

“The Cutting Edge Lectures in Science” Series @ the Redpath Museum: Dr. Christopher Pack will give a lecture on “The Neuroscience of Looking and Seeing” on September 12th at 6:00 p.m.

The Wilder Penfield Lecture @ the MNI: Dr. Richard Tsien will give a lecture entitled “Neuronal Activity, Gene Expression, and Diseases of the Brain” on September 30th at 4:00 p.m.

If you know of any other science events, please tell us about them by emailing us at msurj.media@gmail.com !