After a decade, the EU draws the curtains on its Human Brain Project
Sep 28, 2023

After a decade, the EU draws the curtains on its Human Brain Project

Miryam Naddaf, science reporter with the publication Nature, discusses some of the scientific advances that emerged from the Human Brain Project as well as some of the problems it encountered.

In making the case for the Human Brain Project back in 2009, neuroscientist Henry Markram noted that 2 billion people are affected by some kind of mental disorder. It was time, he said, to explore fundamental questions about how the brain works.

The collaboration that resulted involved hundreds of scientists across several nations. This week marks the end of Europe’s ambitious but also at times controversial initiative. Marketplace’s Lily Jamali spoke with Miryam Naddaf, a reporter for the publication Nature, about what the project’s researchers have accomplished.

The following is an edited transcript of their conversation.

Miryam Naddaf: So the Human Brain Project has created what we call the Human Brain Atlas, which is this platform that hosts the 3D maps of brain structures, and the director of the Human Brain Project described it as the Google Map of the brain. And this atlas basically shows how the brain is organized from its cellular and molecular architecture to the way that it’s connected and the functional models. And the scientists at the Human Brain Project have managed, using this atlas, to identify six previously unknown brain regions that were associated with memory, language retention and using processing. And this brain atlas is accessible through a digital platform called EBRAINS, which is what we call the continuing legacy of the Human Brain Project.

Lily Jamali: Yeah, tell me more about that. Because I think EBRAINS, to my understanding, is this shared research infrastructure that will live on even after the Human Brain Project, you know, comes to an end.

Naddaf: Correct. So EBRAINS is perhaps the most important outcome of the Human Brain Project. It’s a digital platform that hosts brain data and has many services to build models of the brain and run simulations. The researchers can upload their data sets or they can upload their computational models, they can conduct virtual experiments. And this platform was launched in 2018. It’s an open-access platform, so it’s available to anyone around the world. It will continue to be available for everyone, even after the Human Brain Project ends.

Jamali: As we approach the end of the Human Brain Project, what are some of the clinical applications that we can point to that have been an outgrowth of this research?

Naddaf: So perhaps one of the most fascinating outcomes of the Human Brain Project is a clinical trial using personalized digital brain models. So some researchers of the Human Brain Project have constructed what they call digital twins of the brain, where they use imaging data from epilepsy patients to build these twins of their brains. And they use them to identify the region of seizures and epilepsy in each individual. Identifying this would be really helpful in deciding which area to remove in their epilepsy surgery. And they’ve launched this clinical trial using these digital brain twins in 2019. This trial was called Epinov and it’s running across 11 French hospitals with 356 patients. It’s still ongoing so we don’t know the results yet, but we’re expecting to see the analysis in a year, a year and a half.

Jamali: The Human Brain Project has gotten a lot of praise, and rightly so. But it’s also very controversial. And as you write about, that was really the case from the start.

Naddaf: Correct. So the start of the Human Brain Project was not very fortunate. So within a year of its launch, we’ve seen some issues with the management and some dispute, internal disputes, about funding. And that resulted in parts of the scientific community being very critical of it and asking the European Union to reconsider funding it. And then the European Union and the Human Brain Project have done evaluations and have done some changes as well on the management and also project objectives. What we see now is their results of the reforms that they’ve done after the initial unfortunate start.

Jamali: So Miryam, what did you learn about why it’s so hard to model the human brain?

Naddaf: Usually, the digital brain models are noiseless. And so in the brain, we have lots going on at the same time. So trying to model the human brain in a computer with all of these activities going on at the same time is very difficult. Because what we see in the model is usually more focused, so there’s not as much noise as we see in the, in the natural human brain. At the same time, they can have many applications and we can see that now. There’s a focus on clinical application of the digital models of the brain.

More on this

You can read Miryam Naddaf’s article on the Human Brain Project, its accomplishments and criticism here.

You can also check out the project’s brain atlas and interactive 3D maps built from the project’s research here.

Other countries have been inspired to take up their own large-scale brain research initiatives. In 2013, here in the U.S., the National Institutes of Health launched one called Brain Research Through Advancing Innovative Neurotechnologies. Doesn’t exactly roll off the tongue, but it does make for a clever acronym — the BRAIN initiative.

Some of its recent achievements include expanding our understanding of how the human brain stores and retrieves our memories.

Scientists there have also come up with high-resolution maps detailing the cellular changes that Alzheimer’s can produce in our brains, an important step toward developing potentially more effective treatments for the disease.

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