Human Brain Project article

Two years in, a $1-billion-plus effort to simulate the human brain is in disarray. Was it poor management, or is something fundamentally wrong with Big Science?

By Stefan Theil | Sep 15, 2015
Mario Wagner

In Brief

  • In 2013 the European Commission awarded neuroscientist Henry Markram $1.3 billion to pursue an audacious goal: building a simulation of the human brain.
  • Markram's initiative, the Human Brain Project (HBP), is now in disarray. Critics blame HBP management and the project's unreasonably ambitious goals.
  • Yet plenty of blame for the HBP's woes rests with the project's funders in Brussels, who put politics ahead of science and exercised poor oversight.
  • The American BRAIN Initiative has shown that big neuroscience projects can succeed. The HBP is now being reorganized to help it do just that.

For decades Henry Markram has dreamed of reverse engineering the human brain. In 1994, as a postdoctoral researcher then at the Max Planck Institute for Medical Research in Heidelberg, Germany, he became the first scientist to “patch” two living neurons simultaneously—to apply microscopic pipettes to freshly harvested rat neurons to measure the electrical signals fired between them.Scientific American Volume 313, Issue 4 The work demonstrated the process by which synapses are strengthened and weakened, making it possible to study and model how the brain learns. His work landed him a position as senior scientist at the prestigious Weizmann Institute of Science in Rehovot, Israel, and by the time he was promoted to professor in 1998, he was one of the most esteemed researchers in the field.

Then he began to get frustrated. Although researchers worldwide were publishing tens of thousands of neuroscience studies every year, neither our understanding of basic brain functions nor our ability to treat brain disorders seemed to be progressing much. Markram's consternation was also deeply personal. While he was still in Germany, his son Kai had been diagnosed with autism. As he told The Guardian in 2013, he wanted “to be able to step inside a simulation of my son's brain and see the world as he sees it.” The only way to do that, he reasoned, was to go beyond individual experiments with behaviors, diseases and brain anatomy and instead model the circuitry of the entire human brain.

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Q&A

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Is this the end of the Human Genome Project? Or could we see yet another announcement that the sequence is complete?

This is probably the last big landmark for the sequencing effort. "It's closing the last chapter on this volume," Gregory says. "We've wrung as many announcements out of it as we can."

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