Human Brain Project D Angelo


Dear Reader,

In a recent editorial (D’Angelo, 2012), we remarked that, with neuroscience now entering the connectomic era, important projects were expected to be launched in this field by major funding agencies. Now, hot on the heels of confirmation of the EU’s approval of the Human Brain Project (HBP), comes the news that the NIH has approved the Brain Activity Map project. Thus, on both sides of the Atlantic, efforts are being launched to meet what is one of the biggest challenges facing science in the new millennium: understanding the principles of brain functioning. Quite apart from their aims, these projects are exceptional in three respects: they are among the longest ever approved in the field of neuroscience (having a duration of 10 years), the most heavily financed (the HBP will receive about 1.1 billion euros in funding and Brain Activity Map about 3 billion dollars), and the most trans-disciplinary in nature. Overall, these projects offer unprecedented potential, not just for advancing understanding of the human brain, mind and behavior, but also for providing crucial information about the nature and therefore treatment of brain diseases and for driving future technological developments.

The uniqueness of the HBP lies in its use of electrophysiological techniques alongside advanced magnetic resonance imaging and neural modeling, neuroinformatics and neural engineering to gather data on cellular neurophysiology. The main aim of the HBP is to lay the foundations for understanding brain functions through the use of extensive computational resources. Computer simulations will respect the principle of realistic modeling, i.e. modeling based on extensive data sets derived from biology rather than from theoretical abstractions. Realistic neuronal and circuit modeling has advanced considerably in recent decades: ionic channels and receptors, membranes, neurons, synapses and local circuits have been modeled in great detail, improving our knowledge of how these structures operate. Now the challenge is to reconnect these elements into a large assembly mimicking the whole brain. This will necessitate improvements in science and technology at all levels, and will ultimately see the HBP developing over several platforms, including cellular neurophysiology, structural and functional connectivity, single neuron and circuit modeling, databasing of brain diseases, development of neuromorphic hardware, and improvement of computer technology, data communication and analysis, with special attention to the ethical and social implications that can be carried by investigations of this kind.

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