The highly ambitious Human Brain Project — an effort to simulate the human brain in a supercomputer — is drawing fire from neuroscientists who say the initiative is unfeasible, unfocused, and unaccountable.
Europe's Human Brain Project was launched early last year — an effort to develop better tools to study how the brain works. As part of the initiative, researchers will take the next ten years to understand and map the network of over a hundred billion neuronal connections that elicit emotions, volitional thought, and even consciousness itself. And to do so, the researchers are planning to use a progressively scaled-up multilayered simulation running on a supercomputer. More than 80 European and international research institutions are taking part.
But now, hundreds of neuroscientists (yes, hundreds — the crisis is that bad) have signed an open letter condemning what they perceive as an absence of feasibility and transparency. They say it's far too premature to attempt a simulation of the entire human brain in a computer, that it's a waste of money, and that there's the risk of a public backlash against neuroscience. What's more, the signatories say the project's "overly narrow approach" is threatening to set Europe back in terms of its scientific progress.
The summary of the open letter reads like this:
Neuroscience advances our understanding of normal and pathological brain function, offering potentially enormous benefits to society. It is, therefore, critical to Europe. The Human Brain Project (HBP), sponsored by the European Commission (EC), was meant to forward this mission. However, due in great part to its narrow focus, it has been highly controversial and divisive within the European neuroscience community and even within the consortium, resulting in on-going losses of members. The HBP is now scheduled for review and we wish to draw the attention of the EC to these problems. We believe the HBP is not a well conceived or implemented project and that it is ill suited to be the centerpiece of European neuroscience. We are particularly concerned about the plan to tie a substantial portion European member states' neuroscience funding to the HBP through so-called 'partnering projects'. We call for the EC to go beyond the strict requirements of the upcoming review, to demand transparency and accountability and, if necessary, change the structure of the HBP's governance and supervision to correct their shortcomings. Failing that we call for the EC to redirect the HBP funding to smaller investigator-driven neuroscience grants. We stand fully behind a strong and united European neuroscience strategy and we pledge not to seek funding through HBP partnering projects that would compromise that mission.
Should nothing be done, the scientists say they'll boycott the project.
Calling it a "big wake-up call", neuroscientist Henry Markram, the director of the HBP, had this to say in the New York Times:
"It shows us that we have failed to communicate what this project is really about," he said.
Although Dr. Markram hopes to one day simulate the entire brain, he said the project's primary focus was to gather neurological research into databases, to help scientists connect the dots among disparate fields.
"Scientists generate a ton of data, but it goes into journals and then nobody uses it," he said. "We are building the technology to bring all of that together."
In response, Markram said he's going to increase transparency around the project.
As an aside, Obama's brain mapping project is taking a more reasonable approach by working to map the brain's extensive connective network.
Read more at the NYT.