Rethink for Human Brain Project as it enters the final phase

14 Jul 2020 | News

The €1B programme, launched in 2013, is in its last 3 years. After facing controversy for putting computer models before neuroscience, the project now aims to consolidate its legacy in a single, integrated, open science platform

One of the largest-ever EU-funded research programmes, the Human Brain Project (HBP) is now into its final phase and working to construct an open science resource, bringing all the research and tools developed by the initiative under one roof.  

“We are converging the scientific work programme around higher brain functions such as consciousness, and on that basis we want to develop models that will help the understanding of the brain and the brain structures. In parallel, we are setting out to create the infrastructure for future brain research, Ebrains,” Pawel Swieboda, the newly appointed director general of HBP told Science|Business.

The platform, Ebrains, will enable researchers to build upon the HBP’s achievements, with services including data storage, brain modelling and simulation, neuromorphic computing and neurorobotics.

This final phase of the 10-year project has €150 million from the Horizon 2020 budget, its last EU grant.

Now the question is how Ebrains is funded after 2023, says Swieboda. He hopes Ebrains Aisbl, a newly established non-profit organisation formed to take over the HBP legacy, will continue to receive support from the EU to maintain the platform and, potentially, run new research projects.

A more comprehensive focus

The Human Brain project was first launched with great fanfare in 2013, with a mission to build a computer simulation of the brain, working upwards from a cellular level.  

However, the project’s singular focus on in silico modelling did not sit well with some scientists, who believed it should be more interdisciplinary. The trouble started in July 2014, when the commission received a letter signed by more than 800 neuroscientists, expressing grave concern about the human brain project’s scientific scope and governance, and decrying the limited role for clinical neuroscience.

Besides the scientific controversy of relying solely on computer science for modelling the brain, neuroscientists worried the size of the human brain project would drain EU and member state funding for neuroscience research.

A special mediation team set up to reform the project concluded in 2015 that it had been set “unrealistic expectations.”

“We managed to resolve it in such a way that we are focusing on the original vision, but we have added those disciplines which are relevant,” said Swieboda. ”Computing the brain cannot be carried out in isolation from understanding the brain.”

In its final phase, HBP consists of three science work packages, and three packages developing the Ebrains infrastructure providing computing, data, and modelling services for future research.

Rainer Goebel, professor of cognitive neuroscience at Maastricht University and the leader of the work package looking at the interface of brain research, AI and robotics, as the basis of biologically-inspired neural networks, says the key to re-focusing the project was integrating multiple starting points for building the infrastructure.

The initial idea was to create a simulation of the brain starting from the smallest components and building upwards. But Goebel said, “You cannot easily scale that up if you want to cover the whole brain.” He was part of the mediation team that reformed the project, arguing for an integrated top-down approach, which would start by analysing the brain’s functionality and then move to more granular details of how the component parts contribute to that functionality.

“This was a big change in the philosophy of the HBP,” said Goebel. The integration of multiple approaches has ended up bringing the project closer to its original objective. “It’s funny enough, but we are closing the loops. We are closer to our original goal now.”

Viktor Jirsa, professor at the University of Marseille, who leads the work package dedicated to analysing brain behaviour, says all the packages are “very integrated”. He is building models for analysing non-invasive brain imaging data. “We are addressing the structural basis of the human brain network [because] the way it is built can give rise to the brain activity,” said Jirsa.

Goebel’s team then translates this work into technical applications. “They are not independent but complementary,” says Jirsa of the integration of different HBP work packages.

Mavi Sanchez-Vives, professor at the Hospital Clínic Barcelona, who leads the work package which is generating data-driven models of brain networks responsible for cognitive tasks such as object recognition and decision-making, says the collaborative nature of the new platform will provide tools that are essential for advancing brain research. 

Collaboration becomes more necessary, sharing technologies, approaches, data, understanding, and HBP is creating infrastructures to facilitate this,” said Sanchez-Vives. ”The impact of this project transcends basic research in neuroscience. Brain research has an impact on many different fields, including the medical fields, in an area of huge impact in the society, such as stroke or neurodegenerative diseases.

Changes to management

To accompany the project’s new direction, management of the Human Brain Project is also going through changes.

Swieboda, who previously served as the head of research at the European Political Strategy Centre, the commission’s in-house think tank, took over leadership in June.

Currently, Swieboda wears two hats, also serving as the head of Ebrains Aisbl, the non-profit that operates the Ebrains platform. In the next few months, the non-profit will take over the coordinating role of the HBP from the Swiss Ecole polytechnique fédérale de Lausanne (EPFL).

HBP had its roots in EPFL, being principally the brainchild of Henry Markram who in 2005 set up the Blue Brain collaboration between EPFL and IBM. In many respects the emphasis on computer modelling was not surprising, since HBP also had its roots in the EU’s Future and Emerging Technologies programme, which largely funded computer and robotics projects. 

It was clear from the start of the project in 2013 that running such a ship would require an organisation, not just one institution,” said Andreas Mortensen, director of the Laboratory for Mechanical Metallurgy at EPFL, who headed the HBP until this June. It took some time to find and collectively agree on the adequate legal form, he said.

Success for HBP will lie in whether it offers to the world's brain science community a uniquely accessible, organised, attractive and influential hub for sharing and cross-fertilisation of brain science,” said Mortensen. “I think that the new governance and people at the helm of Ebrains give HBP a real chance to successfully reach the finish line.

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