So, in the past couple of months, some pretty big news has come out regarding the possible future of research into the human brain on both sides of the Atlantic.
In the EU, grants were recently awarded to the Human Brain Project and a project doing Graphene research:
Human Brain Project wins major EU funding
28 January 2013
The Human Brain Project has been officially selected as one of the European Commission’s two FET Flagship projects. The new project will unite European efforts to address one of the greatest challenges of modern science: understanding the human brain.
The goal of the Human Brain Project is to pull together all our existing knowledge about the human brain and to reconstruct the brain, piece by piece, in supercomputer-based models and simulations.
The models offer the prospect of a new understanding of the human brain and its diseases and of completely new computing and robotic technologies.
The Human Brain Project is planned to last ten years (2013-2023). The cost is estimated at 1.19 billion euros.
More than 80 European and international research institutions are involved in the project, including UCL groups led by Professor Alex Thomson (UCL School of Pharmacy), Professor Neil Burgess (UCL Institute of Cognitive Neuroscience) and Professor John Ashburner (UCL Institute of Neurology).
The project will also associate some important North American and Japanese partners. It will be coordinated at the Ecole Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne (EPFL) in Switzerland, by neuroscientist Henry Markram with co-directors Karlheinz Meier of Heidelberg University, Germany, and Richard Frackowiak (a former UCL Vice-Provost) from the Centre Hospitalier Universitaire Vaudois (CHUV) and the University of Lausanne (UNIL).
Professor Alex Thomson, who studies the synaptic circuitry that underpins many models of the brain, said: “The brain is both the most exquisitely beautiful and efficient machine and the most frustratingly difficult to understand. Only a multi-dimensional approach can hope to render its complexity accessible to therapy and imitation.”
Professor Malcolm Grant, UCL President & Provost, said: “By funding the Human Brain Project the European Commission has proved their commitment to funding large scale science research. UCL’s role in the Human Brain Project will strengthen and further develop the world-leading research already underway here in the fields of neurology and neuroscience.”
Researchers hope to better understand the energy efficiency of the human brain, and use this knowledge towards the development of biologically inspired computers. Such devices could have a major impact on industry.
Another major goal of the Human Brain Project is to generate tools and infrastructure for the research community and catalyse the development of new treatments for brain disease.
Clinicians involved with the project will study patients with brain diseases, which cost the European Union more than €800 billion each year.
The Human Brain Project is the world's largest brain research programme and more than 20 UK research teams in academia and industry will be involved in the start of the project.
The selection of the Human Brain Project as a FET Flagship is the result of more than three years of preparation and a rigorous and severe evaluation by a large panel of independent, high profile scientists, chosen by the European Commission.
In the coming months, the partners will negotiate a detailed agreement with the Community for the initial first two and a half year ramp-up phase (2013-mid 2016). The project will begin work in the closing months of 2013.
And, more recently, in the US, there's rumblings that the Obama administration is going to announce an initiative to fund such research to the tune of $300 Million per year for 10 years.
The Obama administration is planning a decade-long scientific effort to examine the workings of the human brain and build a comprehensive map of its activity, seeking to do for the brain what the Human Genome Project did for genetics.
The project, which the administration has been looking to unveil as early as March, will include federal agencies, private foundations and teams of neuroscientists and nanoscientists in a concerted effort to advance the knowledge of the brain’s billions of neurons and gain greater insights into perception, actions and, ultimately, consciousness.
Scientists with the highest hopes for the project also see it as a way to develop the technology essential to understanding diseases like Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s, as well as to find new therapies for a variety of mental illnesses.
Moreover, the project holds the potential of paving the way for advances in artificial intelligence.
The project, which could ultimately cost billions of dollars, is expected to be part of the president’s budget proposal next month. And, four scientists and representatives of research institutions said they had participated in planning for what is being called the Brain Activity Map project.
The details are not final, and it is not clear how much federal money would be proposed or approved for the project in a time of fiscal constraint or how far the research would be able to get without significant federal financing.
In his State of the Union address, President Obama cited brain research as an example of how the government should “invest in the best ideas.”
“Every dollar we invested to map the human genome returned $140 to our economy — every dollar,” he said. “Today our scientists are mapping the human brain to unlock the answers to Alzheimer’s. They’re developing drugs to regenerate damaged organs, devising new materials to make batteries 10 times more powerful. Now is not the time to gut these job-creating investments in science and innovation.”
Story C. Landis, the director of the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke, said that when she heard Mr. Obama’s speech, she thought he was referring to an existing National Institutes of Health project to map the static human brain. “But he wasn’t,” she said. “He was referring to a new project to map the active human brain that the N.I.H. hopes to fund next year.”
Indeed, after the speech, Francis S. Collins, the director of the National Institutes of Health, may have inadvertently confirmed the plan when he wrote in a Twitter message: “Obama mentions the #NIH Brain Activity Map in #SOTU.”
A spokesman for the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy declined to comment about the project.
The initiative, if successful, could provide a lift for the economy. “The Human Genome Project was on the order of about $300 million a year for a decade,” said George M. Church, a Harvard University molecular biologist who helped create that project and said he was helping to plan the Brain Activity Map project. “If you look at the total spending in neuroscience and nanoscience that might be relative to this today, we are already spending more than that. We probably won’t spend less money, but we will probably get a lot more bang for the buck.”
Scientists involved in the planning said they hoped that federal financing for the project would be more than $300 million a year, which if approved by Congress would amount to at least $3 billion over the 10 years.
The Human Genome Project cost $3.8 billion. It was begun in 1990 and its goal, the mapping of the complete human genome, or all the genes in human DNA, was achieved ahead of schedule, in April 2003. A federal government study of the impact of the project indicated that it returned $800 billion by 2010.
The advent of new technology that allows scientists to identify firing neurons in the brain has led to numerous brain research projects around the world. Yet the brain remains one of the greatest scientific mysteries.
Composed of roughly 100 billion neurons that each electrically “spike” in response to outside stimuli, as well as in vast ensembles based on conscious and unconscious activity, the human brain is so complex that scientists have not yet found a way to record the activity of more than a small number of neurons at once, and in most cases that is done invasively with physical probes.
But a group of nanotechnologists and neuroscientists say they believe that technologies are at hand to make it possible to observe and gain a more complete understanding of the brain, and to do it less intrusively.
In June in the journal Neuron, six leading scientists proposed pursuing a number of new approaches for mapping the brain.
One possibility is to build a complete model map of brain activity by creating fleets of molecule-size machines to noninvasively act as sensors to measure and store brain activity at the cellular level. The proposal envisions using synthetic DNA as a storage mechanism for brain activity.
“Not least, we might expect novel understanding and therapies for diseases such as schizophrenia and autism,” wrote the scientists, who include Dr. Church; Ralph J. Greenspan, the associate director of the Kavli Institute for Brain and Mind at the University of California, San Diego; A. Paul Alivisatos, the director of the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory; Miyoung Chun, a molecular geneticist who is the vice president for science programs at the Kavli Foundation; Michael L. Roukes, a physicist at the California Institute of Technology; and Rafael Yuste, a neuroscientist at Columbia University.
The Obama initiative is markedly different from a recently announced European project that will invest 1 billion euros in a Swiss-led effort to build a silicon-based “brain.” The project seeks to construct a supercomputer simulation using the best research about the inner workings of the brain.
Critics, however, say the simulation will be built on knowledge that is still theoretical, incomplete or inaccurate.
The Obama proposal seems to have evolved in a manner similar to the Human Genome Project, scientists said. “The genome project arguably began in 1984, where there were a dozen of us who were kind of independently moving in that direction but didn’t really realize there were other people who were as weird as we were,” Dr. Church said.
However, a number of scientists said that mapping and understanding the human brain presented a drastically more significant challenge than mapping the genome.
“It’s different in that the nature of the question is a much more intricate question,” said Dr. Greenspan, who said he is involved in the brain project. “It was very easy to define what the genome project’s goal was. In this case, we have a more difficult and fascinating question of what are brainwide activity patterns and ultimately how do they make things happen?”
The initiative will be organized by the Office of Science and Technology Policy, according to scientists who have participated in planning meetings.
The National Institutes of Health, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency and the National Science Foundation will also participate in the project, the scientists said, as will private foundations like the Howard Hughes Medical Institute in Chevy Chase, Md., and the Allen Institute for Brain Science in Seattle.
A meeting held on Jan. 17 at the California Institute of Technology was attended by the three government agencies, as well as neuroscientists, nanoscientists and representatives from Google, Microsoft and Qualcomm. According to a summary of the meeting, it was held to determine whether computing facilities existed to capture and analyze the vast amounts of data that would come from the project. The scientists and technologists concluded that they did.
They also said that a series of national brain “observatories” should be created as part of the project, like astronomical observatories.
However, it's also becoming somewhat controversial, with some in the field concerned the comparison to the HGP is erroneous, that it won't get the returns people are hoping it will and may possibly divert funds from other research:
The front page of Monday's New York Times revealed the Obama Administration may soon seek billions of dollars from Congress to map the human brain, in an ambitious project many have claimed will do for neuroscience what the Human Genome Project has done for genetics.
Details probably won't emerge until March at the earliest, but it's a safe bet the Administration's plan will resemble a Brain Activity Map (aka "BAM") project outlined last year in the journal Neuron. BAM is an acronym you'll probably be hearing a lot in the weeks and months to come — so let's talk about what the BAM project is, what it isn't, and why it's raising both interest and eyebrows throughout the scientific community.
What is a BAM?
Your brain is vast on a cosmic scale. Billions upon billions of neurons communicate with one another via trillions of connections, giving rise to what amounts to a network of networks. Widely adopted (but by no means universally accepted) theories posit that these neural networks are the wellsprings of such complex processes as perception and action. Many neuroscientists believe that a detailed BAM could reveal valuable clues about these and other cognitive functions, and perhaps human consciousness, itself. Columbia University's Rafael Yuste is one of them.
Yuste is a co-author of a widely circulated BAM project proposal published last July in the journal Neuron, and one of the scientists whose advice the Obama Administration has sought in planning what the NYT characterized as a ten-year, multi-billion dollar undertaking. In an interview with io9, Yuste explained that the ultimate goal of the project is to create what he calls a functional map of the active human brain. "You could argue, in a very simplistic way, that everything that we are, our whole mental world, amounts to nothing more than neural circuits firing [in patterns] throughout the brain," Yuste said. By mapping circuit activity, Yuste thinks researchers can "discover patterns that are the physical representation and origin of mental states — of thoughts, for example, or memories."
Said map would amount to much more than what is often referred to as a "static" model — a wiring diagram that charts how neurons connect with one another. A "functional" model, Yuste emphasized, would go much further, by allowing researchers to see not just the connections between the tens of billions of neurons that comprise a human brain, but the individual action of every cell in a given neural circuit. George Church, a molecular geneticist at Harvard University, told io9 that it's like the difference between knowing the spatial distribution of a city's telephone wires and knowing where, when, and how those wires are transmitting messages. (An early architect and longtime ambassador of the Human Genome Project, Church has been tapped to work on the BAM project, and is a co-author on last year's white paper.)
Creating such a map will require nothing short of a technological revolution in the field of neuroscience. It is currently possible to insert electrodes into the brain that can both monitor and induce brain activity. But the resolution offered by these and less invasive techniques is poor. That means the first step toward a BAM will be to develop tools that can actually record the individual activity of every neuron in a brain circuit. The second step will be to create tools that can influence the activity of individual neurons.
In this sense, Yuste said, BAM "is essentially a technical development project," aimed at devising techniques that can both measure and stimulate neurons with exquisite spacial specificity. Development and implementation of these tools would, of course, begin on smaller organisms (think flies and mice) and specific brain regions, progressing toward the ultimate goal of plotting the real-time activity of the neurons and networks in an entire human brain.
To many, these tools would represent an enormous step forward for the field of neuroscience, producing therapeutic, financial, and intellectual fruit as rich and plentiful as The Human Genome Project. But more scientists are balking at the prospect of a multi-billion-dollar BAM project — and its comparisons to the HGP — than you might expect.
HGP vs. BAM
Grievances thus far — many of which have been aired and compiled in this piece over at the Atlantic — have centered on two concerns. The first is money.
Already strapped for cash, some neuroscientists are worried that an undertaking as massive as a BAM project could trigger a major reorganization of existing neuro funds, diverting precious research capital away from smaller projects ruled unsympathetic to the BAM cause. Other scientists fear the worst: a wholesale redistribution of all existing biological science funding (that means fields outside of neuroscience) to make room for BAM's multi-billion-dollar pricetag.
Though Yuste admitted he has little influence over which financial route Washington will take, he said he's pulling for the third, and by far most palatable, scenario: "The human genome was sequenced with new money, and BAM should not be funded with money reapportioned from other scientific enterprises."
"Our sincere hope," added Yuste, "is that this will be new money, new funding... not for us, but for the entire field" — with the additional proviso that "every single tool or technique [developed] will be immediately released for the entire neuroscience community."
Which brings us to the second major class of objection. Even in the unlikely event Washington does inject billions of new dollars into research, many feel the BAM project's conceptual aims remain far less clear than those of the Human Genome Project.
"I think the comparison between the Human Genome Project and BAM is completely inappropriate," Princeton genomicist Leonid Kruglyak told io9, "other than the fact that they're both big projects aimed at a large biological problem." In the case of the human genome, he said, the ultimate goal was extremely clear: "the three billion base pairs of the human genome, in order, defined."
"That's a pretty clear target to shoot at," he continued, "and I think, at least, many of the applications of that were very clear. Would it be valuable to be able to record the activity of a large number of individual neurons simultaneously? Absolutely. Would that solve how the brain works? I think that's a much bigger question."
Kruglyak said one of the main arguments for launching the Human Genome Project and conducting it in a centralized fashion was that researchers were already searching for disease genes and sequencing the genome in piecemeal. It was going to get done one way or the other, but it was going to happen in thousands of little bits at a time — highly inefficient from the standpoint of time and money. Centralizing the process through the Human Genome Project dramatically reduced costs while accelerating the mapping process toward a certain goal with definitive applications. "But I think even folks who are pushing BAM would agree that, even in a fifteen year time frame, they don't see any way of doing something similar for the human brain," said Kruglyak. "It would be a nice thing to do, but it's completely in the realm of science fiction at this point."
Church and Yuste have a far easier time drawing parallels between BAM and the Human Genome Project. They cite, for example, the potential for financial return. "I would argue that this will be more economically powerful than Human Genome Project," says Yuste. Churche echoed his colleague's sentiment."We learned from the HGP experience that technology should be done as early as possible," says Church, noting that he price of genome sequencing may have been brought down a million-fold, but only after the HGP project was over. "If you mix technology development and applications from the beginning, I think you wind up with a more cost effective, and relevant project. Those are things that we're going to do differently this time around."
"Humans are nothing but our brains," Yuste said of the potential applications for technology produced in pursuit of a map of human brain activity. "Our whole culture, our personality, our minds, are a result of activity in the brain." Church tempered Yuste's holistic response with specifics. He looks forward to new medical technologies like brain-computer interfaces for cochlear, epilepsy, spinal injury and retinal implants. These devices, he argues, only stand to improve, and at an enormous benefit to the economy. "We don't have to speculate on whether there's ever going to be a market for this stuff," he asserted. "There already is."
This, of course, doesn't even begin to touch on the issues going on in Washington surrounding the upcoming sequester and what result that may have on additional federal spending, especially to the tune that the administration is considering.
Personally, I'm all for these projects. There's a lot of research currently being done in Brain Machine Interfacing, so the potential boon to that field is obvious once we know more about how the brain works, not to mention the untold impacts it could have for psychotherapy, treatment of neurological disorders and so on. But the question remains whether or not the initiative can get itself off the ground in the US.
Additionally, with similar research being funded in the EU, what are the prospects like for international collaboration between the two initiatives?
Most important of all, what do you think we can honestly expect to see come out of the results of these two major initiatives into researching the brain?