human brain project
July 8, 2014

UK Neuroscientists Threaten Boycott Of Human Brain Project

redOrbit Staff & Wire Reports - Your Universe Online

It has been called the most ambitious neuroscience project ever attempted, but a proposed 10-year, $1.6 billion initiative designed to develop technology capable of simulating a person’s brain is now facing a possible boycott from scientists over concerns the project is too expensive and has too narrow a focus.

When it was originally announced in October 2013, the Human Brain Project was described as an attempt to create a new computer science technology that would allow officials at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology (EPFL) and 135 partner institutions to collect and compile decades worth of information about the human brain.

The goal was to shed new light on exactly what it is that makes our brains unique, to identify the basic mechanisms behind behavior and cognition, to find new methods of diagnosing brain diseases, and to create new pieces of technology that are inspired by how the brain computes information. The EPFL and their colleagues hoped to have the systems in place and tested in time to begin conducting simulations and calculations by 2016.

On Monday, however, more than 200 scientists posted an open letter saying the initiative was flawed “due in great part to its narrow focus” and that it is “not a well conceived or implemented project.”

The project “has been highly controversial and divisive within the European neuroscience community and even within the consortium, resulting in on-going losses of members,” the authors noted, adding they believe it is “ill suited to be the centerpiece of European neuroscience.” They called upon the European Commission, which is sponsoring the research, to fix the program’s problems as part of an upcoming review.

Project leader and EPFL scientist Henry Markram told Martin Enserink and Kai Kupferschmidt of Science that the authors are only having difficulty accepting the “methodological paradigm shift” towards computer modeling which the project represents, and that far more neuroscientists continue to support the study.

A similar US-based initiative known as BRAIN (Brain Research through Advancing Innovative Neurotechnologies) is attempting to investigate the inner workings of the human mind. But unlike the UK-based project, the American one has “a much better approach” by focusing on research technology instead of computer models of the brain, University College London computational neuroscientist and longtime HBP critic Peter Dayan told the Science correspondents.

HBP was launched as an attempt to create computer models of the human brain, but some scientists have criticized it and the Swiss project it grew out of, Blue Brain, as “a scientific folly and a waste of public money that would sap support from other areas of brain research,” Enserink and Kupferschmidt said. Markram countered that those individuals have misunderstood the project’s nature, though that has done little to stem the criticism.

Dr. Zachary Mainen, Director of the Champalimaud Neuroscience Programme in Portugal, has officially withdrawn from the project and helped to develop the letter. He told BBC News there is widespread concern about HBP both inside and outside of the project, and that many scientists are irritated at the lack of transparency. Mainen added there was “a crazy degree of resentment and distrust” surrounding the project, and that organizers have fired anyone who had objections.

“The main apparent goal of building the capacity to construct a larger-scale simulation of the human brain is radically premature,” Peter Dayan, director of the computational neuroscience unit at UCL, added in an interview with The Guardian. “We are left with a project that can't but fail from a scientific perspective. 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.”

Alexandre Pouget, a signatory of the letter from Geneva University, added the simulations would be valuable, but would not actually help explain how the brain works. He added there was “a danger that Europe thinks it is investing in a big neuroscience project here, but it's not. It's an IT project. They need to widen the scope and take advantage of the expertise we have in neuroscience. It's not too late. We can fix it.”


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