The Human Brain Project: Unraveling the mysteries of the mind

December 2013

The inner workings of the mind to a large extent remain a mystery. However, a pioneering team of scientists working on the Human Brain Project (HBP), led by Professor Henry Markram, is taking neuroscientific research to a new level. The aim is to create a computer simulation of the human brain to gain a more profound understanding of how it works and the diseases that afflict it, and to develop new information technologies that mimic the brain’s learning ability. This groundbreaking initiative recently won an unprecedented 1.2 billion euros in funding from the European Union as a Future Emerging Technologies (FET) Flagship project. Unraveling the mysteries of the mind and the project’s approach to doing so, promise to shape the future of neuroscience, medicine and computing.

The brain is made up of a thousand trillion plus connections. The Human Brain Project aims to chart the mechanisms that drive the brain’s intricate circuitry to better understand how it works. The insights generated promise to shape the future of neuroscience, medicine and computing. (Photo: Blue Brain Project, EPFL)

Changing the rules of the game – why it’s necessary

While the human genome has been mapped successfully, charting the mechanisms that drive the brain’s intricate circuitry, and its thousand trillion plus connections, is proving a tougher and more complex challenge. Professor Markram believes that without a new game plan, the best efforts of scientists around the world will yield few benefits. “You have to sometimes realize you’re banging your head against the wall and going nowhere. In science we just steam ahead and don’t actually look at where it is going. I personally don’t believe we will understand the brain that way. We have to change the game; we have to look at what we’re doing right and what we’re doing wrong.”

Brain diseases are the third largest contributor (after respiratory and diarrheal diseases) to the global disease burden, undermining the quality of life of millions and straining healthcare budgets around the world. “These diseases cost the world almost 10 percent of global GDP,” Professor Markram noted.

Every year, thousands of peer-reviewed papers on brain research are produced – around 100,000 in 2012, at a cost of some 7 billion euros – yet breakthroughs in treating brain diseases are few and far between. “There’s an explosion in the amount of brain-related data being generated but there is a decrease in our effectiveness to produce medicine for the brain,” Professor Markram explained, noting that in 2012 just five new drugs had been produced to treat mainly peripheral disorders. “Game-changing strategies are essential if we are to understand the brain, to understand the diseases and to build new computing technologies,” he said.

Creating a unified understanding of the brain

(Photo: Blue Brain Project, EPFL)

The HBP aims to pull together as much brain research data as possible in order to reconstruct the machinery of the brain and establish a unified understanding of where brain research currently stands. “Currently our knowledge is fragmented and we need to build new technologies to understand how all these pieces fit together as a single unit,” Professor Markram said. “If we want to understand the machinery of the brain from genes to proteins, to cells and synapses and circuits we have to understand all its components and how they interact to produce the cognitive capabilities that we have. With this model we’ll be able to understand the brain across all its levels,” he said. “This will ultimately allow us to understand how the brain builds perceptions, how it builds our world. This is essential if we’re going to begin to understand diseases in a more systematic way and if we want to build new technologies inspired by how the brain functions.”

Social and economic benefits

Not only will the HBP’s integrated approach help accelerate brain research by identifying gaps in knowledge, it also promises huge social and economic benefits. “The sky is the limit,” Professor Markram said, outlining a long list of possibilities ranging from new medicines and diagnostic tools to new kinds of computers. “There is huge commercial potential in understanding the brain but at the same time there is huge benefit to society.”

Improved diagnoses of brain diseases

The endeavor promises to generate insights that will improve diagnosis and treatment of brain diseases, of which there are around 600. With error rates of between 30 to 40 percent, brain disease diagnosis and drug development are notoriously difficult. “We need to identify diseases and understand how they are related to each other. We do not promise solutions to these diseases but we do promise a technology platform and a new approach to researching them. Without these we will not easily find new solutions or effective treatments in the future,” he said. The HBP’s approach, he believes will renew the dwindling commitment of the pharmaceutical industry in this area. “We believe we can show that this new approach is a powerful new way to make it cheaper to screen and look for treatments.”

The future of computing

“The brain uses 20 watts – a banana a day. It runs far better than a multi-gigawatt supercomputer. It is the future of computing,” Professor Markram said. Simulating the machinery of the brain will require information technologies that are significantly more powerful than existing ones.

“We want to build computers based on how the human brain functions. We do this by extracting principles about how the brain does something, turn these into mathematical equations which are then printed onto silicon chips with extraordinary capabilities,” he explained. “We have to build new software to run on supercomputers, we have to drive the development of new supercomputers over the next decade. We want to have a pipeline where we can systematically generate new computers based on certain cognitive functions: this is a very different approach to the way artificial intelligence has gone thus far,” he said. These so-called neuromorphic computers – which mimic the brain’s ability to learn – will significantly enhance computing capabilities and may also make it possible “to develop chips that could replace certain cognitive deficits,” Professor Markam noted.

Changing minds

The HBP, which brings together a multi-disciplinary team of scientists from more than 80 research institutions across Europe and beyond, is also sparking a cultural revolution within the research community, prompting a shift away from individual lab-based innovation towards multidisciplinary team innovation. “It is team science that is going to give us the hope of understanding the brain,” he said. “This is essential because it requires researchers from across the academic spectrum to work together towards a single mission.”

A technology platform is born

The HBP is effectively a technology platform to promote research and development and involves “a massive collaborative sharing process.” The aim is for the platform to enable scientists and industry alike to “innovate, build and leverage new tools.” “It is not going to be about us innovating, it is about us building a platform that is open. Anybody in the world, in principle, is going to be able to come in and innovate on the platform.”

“One of our measure of success will be how successful we are in enabling industries to come up with new tools; for pharmaceutical companies to be able to come up with cheaper and more targeted and reliable drugs faster and for clinicians to be able to more accurately diagnose patients,” Professor Markram said.

A role for intellectual property?

“There is going to be a lot of intellectual property, for medical diagnostics, for new drugs, for new kinds of computers” Professor Markram said. “Intellectual property is very important because if you just have ideas and nobody has the rights to them, it’s very difficult to get investment or support for a product that has commercial potential. If you don’t file and have ownership you can’t ensure that the idea is going to be beneficial to the world. That is why is it is essential that we have a very strong intellectual property agenda.”

To patent or not to patent?

That said, insofar as the project is also driving fundamental academic research, deciding when to patent and when not to, is an important issue. “When we have an enabling technology that will allow others to build on and develop a lot of new technology we go for open source. But if this would not result in the technology’s wide dissemination then it becomes very important to patent it,” he explained. “We have got to get better and better at making this decision,” Professor Markram said, pointing to the need to boost IP awareness within the scientific community.

A need for greater standardization of IP systems

Given the complexity of the current international IP landscape and the time and cost involved in using it, as well as the collaborative nature of the HBP’s mission, Professor Markram underlined the need for greater international standardization of IP laws. “The challenge we face is that there will be a lot of co-ownership of the intellectual property around the world,” he said, pointing to the project’s emphasis on team innovation involving scientists and innovators from multiple countries. “It is going to become more and more important that countries agree on what the rules are for acquiring and protecting intellectual property. Standardized approaches to intellectual property are going to become absolutely essential,” he said.

The HBP is game-changing because it:

  • represents a radically new approach to brain research involving international multidisciplinary teams of scientists;
  • promises new tools that will improve the chances of unravelling the mysteries of the brain and create a unified and more profound understanding of how it works;
  • will shape the future of neuroscience, medicine and computing.

The phenomenal achievements of these visionary individuals and the enormous potential of their pioneering work offers great hope for the millions of people around the world. “It is only innovation that gives us the possibility of change and of addressing the problems, difficulties and deficiencies that we perceive,” noted WIPO Director General Francis Gurry at the close of the WIPO Forum. “The process of innovation these days is an extremely complex one,”” he said, underlining the need for the IP community to ensure that the “IP system, which is designed to encourage innovation, is responsive to social innovation which is the reality of innovation today."

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