July 7, 2014

Human Brain Project Draws Sharp Criticism

Tiffany Trader

More than 250 neuroscientists have issued an open letter calling for the European Union to reconsider the direction of the Human Brain Project (HBP), the ambitious brain-mapping project that launched last year under the direction of Henry Markram, a neuroscientist at the École Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne in Switzerland.

The European Commission (EC) saw fit to fund the 10-year project to the tune of 1.2 billion euros ($1.6 billion), but scientists have been skeptical from the beginning. Now there is an official letter documenting those concerns, the main assertion being that the mission’s objectives and funding are misguided.

As of right now, 261 leading scientists, and counting, have signed a letter that says in part, “…we wish to express the view that the HBP is not on course and that the European Commission must take a very careful look at both the science and the management of the HBP before it is renewed. We strongly question whether the goals and implementation of the HBP are adequate to form the nucleus of the collaborative effort in Europe that will further our understanding of the brain.”

The project’s core goal, as stated on its website, is “to build a completely new information computing technology infrastructure for neuroscience.”

The focus on supercomputer simulations is what’s most upsetting to the dissenters. This is a community that obviously recognizes the importance of brain research, but they question the feasibility of the overarching goal. It’s too soon, they say, to digitally recreate such a complex organ.

Echoing the sentiments of his colleagues and cosignatories, Peter Dayan, director of the computational neuroscience unit at University College London, characterized the project as “radically premature.”

“We are left with a project that can’t but fail from a scientific perspective,” Dayan told the Guardian. “It is a waste of money, it will suck out funds from valuable neuroscience research, and would leave the public, who fund this work, justifiably upset.”

The letter calls for an independent review of the Human Brain Project and the reallocation of funding “to meet the original goals for the HBP: understanding brain function and its effect on society.” If the EU fails to adopt their recommendations, the scientists pledged they will boycott the Human Brain Project and will urge their colleagues to do likewise.

A similar project launched by President Obama last year, called the BRAIN Initiative, has been received more favorably.

Says Richard Born of Harvard Medical School in Boston, Massachusetts, whose lab stands to quality for NIH-funding for the US-based endeavor:

“I don’t think the money that Europe put into the efforts was particularly wisely spent. The NIH has very wise leaders, so if the US continues to manage its money wisely, we’ll see much greater results.”

The aim of the BRAIN Initiative is to accelerate the development of innovative technologies that will enable scientists to identify how individual cells and complex neural circuits interact in both time and space. BRAIN, in this case, stands for Brain Research through Advancing Innovative Neurotechnologies.

Last month, the National Institutes of Health (NIH) requested $4.5 billion to carry out its part in the project. Other participants include the National Science Foundation, the Food and Drug Administration, and DARPA, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency.

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