Human Brain Project under attack

Credit: Human Brain Project

Credit: Human Brain Project

Last week, the eyes of the scientific community were fixed on the € 1.2 billion Human Brain Project (HBP) as more than 150 European neuroscientists raised concerns over the project’s management in an open letter to the European Commission.

One of the two Europe’s Flagship Initiatives, the HBP spans 112 research institutions across 24 countries and was launched last year with the grand vision of creating a long-needed ICT infrastructure for future brain research. Not without controversy, the project adopted a bottom-up approach to build a computer simulation of the brain based exclusively on the fundamental understanding of neurons and their interactions.

The public outcry is not surprising given that the project has been surrounded by heated discussions from the very beginning when a number of labs refused to be part of the project because of its narrow focus on ICT and an apparent lack of basic neuroscience. Now many researchers fear that the inevitable failure of the project will cause a wave of adverse reaction to neuroscience undermining the future of the field.

The letter was largely driven by the recent changes made in the project plans for the next stage, which limits the role of cognitive scientists who pursue the difficult task of understanding the brain on the level of thought and behaviour. Now the labs working in this direction are to be repositioned from the project’s core to what is known as partnering projects (PPs). The concern is that, while the resulting computer simulations may not be completely useless, without a more pronounced theoretical component they will fail to elucidate brain functions.

A detailed review of the second stage by the EU commission is scheduled for January 2015 and the letter’s authors hope to bring the attention of the reviewers to the flaws in both science and management of the project. The second stage is expected to receive € 100 million over the course of 2 to 3 years, with a 50/50 split between the CP and the PPs.

The official response, released by the HBP two days after the letter, shows signs of disposition and openness to dialogue. The response states that “the members of the HBP are saddened by the open letter” and invite the signatories to engage in direct discussion with the project leaders. Importantly, the response strongly suggests that cognitive neuroscience and other basic research will have an increasingly crucial role in the project as the required ICT platform comes into place.

Lots of researchers still firmly stand by the project arguing it’s a long-needed change in brain research. You may also be interested in reading this article defending the project by Richard Frackowiak, the co-executive director of the HBP.

What is clear is that the HBP has not managed to entirely unite neuroscientists, but when it comes to such grand projects this is not as surprising as it may seem. The management might need to become more consensual and we can only hope that HBP will continue its 10-year journey to unravel the universe inside our heads.






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