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Neuroscience headache


European scientists criticise Human Brain Project




More than 200 neuroscientists are protesting Europe’s $1.6 billion (CHF1.43 billion) attempt to recreate the functioning of the human brain on supercomputers, fearing it will waste vast amounts of money and harm neuroscience in general. 

The ten-year Human Brain Project, based at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Lausanne (EPFL), is largely funded by the European Union. In an open letter published on Monday, neuroscience researchers called on the EU to put less money into the effort to “build” a brain, and to invest instead in existing projects. 

If the EU doesn’t adopt their recommendations, the scientists said, they would boycott the Human Brain Project and urge colleagues to do the same. 

EU spokesman Ryan Heath called for patience, saying it was too early to say whether the project was a success because it had only been under way for nine months. He said the EU planned to rigorously review the scientific progress made and the project’s management every year. 

Henry Markram, who heads the Human Brain Project at EPFL, suggested those who signed the letter of protest did so because they didn’t understand the venture. 

In an interview, he said the project, established in 2013, would bundle the work of some 100,000 neuroscientists worldwide the way that CERN, the European Organization for Nuclear Research, has done for particle physics. He acknowledged the brain project may have done a poor job telling scientists how they may benefit, even if they aren’t directly involved. 

“I think we need to communicate more that it’s going to actually help them get more funding,” Markram said. “They feel that money is being taken away, that it’s going to distract from the important work that they’re doing. There is really not a threat.” 

Simulations 

The Human Brain Project involves 112 institutions across Europe and the pooling, sharing and organisation of their data on brain research. That information will be used to reconstruct the workings of a human brain on computers. 

“Only through simulations can you do some things that aren’t possible in the lab,” Markram said.

Scientists plan to set up and test research platforms covering the following subjects: neuroinformatics, brain simulation, high-performance computing, medical informatics, neuromorphic computing and neurorobotics. In 2016, these platforms will be ready for use by researchers all over the world.

swissinfo.ch and agencies