Science tries to get inside your head with a €1bn brain

Two ambitious new projects aim to find out just how the human brain works

Your brain. Can we really get our heads around the three pounds or so of fatty, salty tissue and the billions of cellular connections and molecular interactions that make you do what you do?

Two major projects announced in recent months have staked out ambitious aims to get the bigger picture of what’s going on in there.

In January, the European Commission revealed it had selected the Human Brain Project (HBP) as a Future and Emerging Technologies flagship project. Expected to cost more than €1 billion over the next decade, the initiative is looking to build a computer simulation of a human brain. If the approach works, the model could provide a virtual testbed for experimenting and understanding the brain in health and disease.

Then in early April the Obama administration announced the BRAIN initiative, standing for Brain Research through Advancing Innovative Neurotechnologies, but often simply called the Brain Activity Map. The idea here is to develop and use technologies to record real-time interactions and to help to build up a more dynamic picture of the brain. Again the plan is to work on this over a decade, and each year will likely need hundreds of millions of dollars in funding.


Big thinking
HBP and BRAIN are not the only big brain projects on the go, but they are the newer kids on the block. So will all that big thinking and sinking of funds really deliver?

Prof Henry Markram, who co-ordinates the Human Brain Project, argues the case for bringing data together.

"We need to drive a complete revolution in the way we do neuroscience . . . what is needed is a global collaboration," he told a recent conference on European Brain Research: Successes and Next Challenges in Brussels, which was organised by the European Commission for European Month of the Brain.

Markram outlined the need to integrate the data pouring out from scientific studies of the brain. "We really do understand the brain far better than we have ever understood it and we are understanding the brain better every single day but it's not enough, and we have to set our goals far far higher," he said.

Linking levels
Part of the issue is that researchers study the brain at different scales of space and time and we are missing integration and a coherent view, according to Markram, who is based at École Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne (EPFL) in Switzerland.

But even if you integrate results from studies at the levels of individual cells, circuits and entire brain regions, the challenge of simulating the complexity of the human brain is still gargantuan. Is it worth doing?

The uber-neuroscience approach gets a qualified thumbs up from Prof Kevin Mitchell, who is associate professor of genetics and neuroscience at Trinity College Dublin. “I think it’s the right time for concerted efforts like these,” he says.

Mitchell is not involved in HBP or BRAIN, and he particularly doubts that a human brain will be fully simulated in the next 10 years, but he argues that there is plenty to be learned in the process of trying. “This is not like a moonshot where if you don’t get to the moon you have failed – if we get part-way with this it will be a huge success, and it will be cumulative over the years,” he says.

Prof John Lowry from NUI Maynooth’s chemistry department, who has developed sensor technology for measuring brain chemistry in situ in real time, sees positives and negatives to the ‘big project’ approach. “Large-scale integration and interdisciplinary interactions tackling emotive subjects are easy to sell and in some respects justify,” he says.

“And I think there is no doubt that if they are managed properly and the research is good, they will lead to advances in our fundamental understand of the science – in this case of brain function – but whether they will lead to new therapies is debatable. There is a chronic need right now for a lot of brain diseases, and the outputs from such large-scale projects most likely will be many years downstream.”

Black box
Dr Richard Roche, a lecturer in NUI Maynooth's department of psychology, agrees that the horizon is far on projects such as BRAIN and HBP, but he welcomes the ambition. "The scope here is enormous - you are dealing with the most complex object we know of in the universe," he says. "The brain is a black box composed of lots more black boxes and we are barely scratching the surface of our understanding of it.

“But at the end of the day, we are scientists. We are supposed to be tackling the difficult questions and trying to unravel these things.”

Dr Roche is president of the Irish Brain Council, which was launched earlier this week to promote brain research, and he is encouraged by the funding that is being allocated for the investigations in BRAIN and HBP.

“Putting a huge amount of money into what is effectively basic science will have benefits maybe 10,15, 20 years down the road,” he says.

"And we will learn an awful lot along the way, not only about how the brain does work but also about how it doesn't work, in both normality and in diseases and disorders. I like that these projects are asking why not, instead of why."

Claire O'Connell acted as rapporteur for the conference European Brain Research, Successes & Next Challenges

Bringing molecules to mind
How do cells and molecules 'talking' to each other in your brain translate into you thinking or behaving a certain way? "That's one of the big mysteries in neuroscience," says Prof Kevin Mitchell from Trinity College Dublin.

One way to get an insight into the puzzle could be to integrate what we see at the various different levels of organisation in the brain. This runs from individual molecules and brain cells interacting with each other, through local circuits or groups of brain cells that work together right up to looking at activity in big chunks of the brain, he explains.

“Currently it seems that neuroscientists are generating tons of data but in a fragmented sort of way – we are not taking advantage of that and extracting the information from it because we are not able to integrate across those levels,” he says. “By bringing the data and efforts together, we could see new patterns emerging.”

That’s where Mitchell sees the value of the Human Brain Project, which is gearing up to build a computer-based simulation of the human brain.

But could such a simulation do more than just point us in the direction of these answers? Could it become conscious itself at some level? “Theoretically if they manage to recapitulate or simulate all of the components of a human brain, then who knows, it might well become conscious,” says Mitchell. “There’s nothing to say that it shouldn’t just because it’s made out of silicon as opposed to biological, organic material.”

Claire O'Connell

Claire O'Connell

Claire O'Connell is a contributor to The Irish Times who writes about health, science and innovation