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Battle Breaks Out Over Europe's Billion-Dollar Brain Project

Almost 500 neuroscientists have expressed grave concerns about the European Union's $1.6 billion Human Brain Project.
Photo via Jean-Christophe Bott/AP

The European Union's Human Brain Project (HBP) has been underway for less than a year-and-a-half, but almost 500 neuroscientists are already prepared to pull out of the €1.2 billion ($1.6 billion) initiative.

An open letter published on Monday and signed by 485 — and counting — members of Europe's neuroscience community states that the HBP is "not on course." It maintains that the European Commission "must take a very careful look at both the science and the management of the HBP before it is renewed."


"We strongly question whether the goals and implementation of the HBP are adequate to form the nucleus of the collaborative effort in Europe that will further our understanding of the brain," the message continued.

Dr. Matthias Hennig, a researcher at the University of Edinburgh's Institute for Adaptive and Neural Computation, told VICE News that the letter "states our concerns about oversight, the funding mechanisms, and transparency in the Human Brain Project."

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Hennig, who is the 66th signer of the letter, explained that HBP has been compared to the Human Genome Project, which he says reveals a fundamental problem in neuroscience.

The Human Genome Project had a clearly defined goal: to sequence a human genome as comprehensively as possible. However, according to Hennig, neuroscientists have not yet come up with anything so straightforward.

"Therefore, neuroscience requires variety and a diversity of approaches," Hennig said. "Our concern is that HBP is moving the opposite way, instead of enabling exploratory and collaborative research."

In this sense, science can be viewed like a diversified investment portfolio. If one or two stocks tank, one's other holdings should even out the returns. In the case of HBP, the EU has bet everything on one roll of the dice, according to Dr. James Bednar, director of Doctoral Training Centre in Neuroinformatics and Computational Neuroscience, also at the University of Edinburgh.


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Bednar, the eighth signer of the letter, told VICE News that he "quickly found" that HBP was being run with a "very specific agenda." It's a vision set forth by project leader Henry Markram, of the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology and Bednar, like Hennig, sees dedicating a billion euros to one man's idea as sheer folly.

"People don't think the project is being run in a way that will be a benefit to the neuroscience community," Bednar said. "This relegates all neuroscientists in Europe to servicing a project they fundamentally don't agree with."

Think of how much could have been achieved by funding a thousand different projects for €1 million euros each, Bednar offered.

"It's not like there is one scientist in Europe who understands the human brain well enough to stake everything on," he said. "If there's money to be spent on simulating the brain, it ought to spent on individual researchers, separate projects, and investigator-led research."

'Anyone who knows the field and looks at that list knows that the HBP has alienated the European neuroscience leadership.

Markram, who was unavailable for comment when contacted by VICE News, maintains the scientists in the anti-HBP camp don't fully understand what he's trying to do. The project's administrators admit it is extremely ambitious, but insist recreating a human brain is "feasible."


Professor Thomas Lippert, director of Germany's Jülich Supercomputing Centre, has said that HBP will be "a leader in the creation of new technology for simulation, for visualization and for big data handling in Europe." Controversial as it may be, HBP's backers believe "this first ambitious step" is crucial. Otherwise, according to the HBP website, "the cost for society will be far greater than anyone can imagine."

There is also another brain research project going on at the same time. This is a US government-led program called BRAIN (Brain Research through Advancing Innovative Neurotechnologies). BRAIN is run by the National Institutes of Health (NIH), and has been described as "a much better approach" by Peter Dayan, a computational neuroscientist at University College London. As he told Science magazine, BRAIN's administrators focused on developing technologies to further brain research, rather than attempting to build an entire computerized artificial brain.

Cornelia Bargmann was the co-chair of the BRAIN planning committee at the NIH — a charge that is now complete — and she now heads the Lulu and Anthony Wang Laboratory of Neural Circuits and Behavior at Rockefeller University in New York City. How HBP does (or doesn't) stack up to BRAIN, Bargmann doesn't say. Yet what is not in dispute is that the signers of today's open letter are a "who's who of European neuroscience." Bargmann told VICE News that they are "prizewinners, thought leaders, smart, collaborative people — not troublemakers, not complainers, not people who have any funding problems."


"Anyone who knows the field and looks at that list knows that the HBP has alienated the European neuroscience leadership," she said. "That is really too bad. If HBP is really about neuroscience, they need those people."

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Bargmann believes that HBP has "clearly shifted in its aims" since its inception. The 2012 plans included a prominent role for experimental neuroscience, and this year's plans do not. In 2014, HBP sees itself as a supercomputing project. According to Bargmann, however: "There still seems to be a desire on the part of HBP to say it's a neuroscience project. I think that's just muddled. They are taking a personal viewpoint that this kind of supercomputing and simulation will be good for neuroscience, but there was no attempt to build a European scientific consensus around that point."

'They want headlines, they want the world stage, they want everyone to say, "Wow, look at what Europe can do."'

One researcher told VICE News that he gets the sense that Markram — whom he describes as "a respected scientific researcher" — is "chasing after glory, rather than going after solid science." Speaking on condition of anonymity, he says he believes Markram and his colleagues, "want headlines, they want the world stage, they want everyone to say, 'Wow, look at what Europe can do.'"

After HBP's latest proposal to the European Commission for a second round of funding, what Europe might be doing right now is actually narrowing the scope of its brain research. According to the letter, this includes "the removal of an entire neuroscience subproject and the consequent deletion of 18 additional laboratories," which sidelines cognitive scientists who study areas like thought and behavior.


Jonathan Moreno, a bioethicist at the University of Pennsylvania and author of Mind Wars: Brain Science and the Military in the 21st Century, told VICE News that this is a highly important piece of the puzzle if we ever are to fully understand the connection between the physical brain and the phenomenology of the mind — the "mind" being what the brain actually does.

"I have no idea if enough data can be actually collected to simulate the human brain, but cognitive neuroscientists believe that unless we model our experience, we're not really learning how we are our brain," Moreno said. "Now they feel left out. Their expertise isn't being engaged."

Amid the incredible advances that researchers have made in understanding the human brain, the body's most complex organ is still highly predictable in many ways. And with that, Moreno noted that he isn't entirely surprised about the skirmish breaking out over HBP.

"Neuroscientists are just like anyone else," he said. "Anytime there's money involved, there's always some dissatisfaction."

Follow Justin Rohrlich on Twitter: @JustinRohrlich