Science

Europe's 10-year $1.6B Human Brain Project kicks into high-gear

Brain scan
Image Credit: Liz Henry/Flickr http://www.flickr.com/photos/lizhenry/2051224366/

A global group of scientists are spending the next ten years and a billion dollars to try and develop a computer simulation of the brain.

The Human Brain Project (HBP) is the neuroscience equivalent of the Human Genome Project. The European Union-funded initiative aims to gain a deeper understanding of the human brain by developing technology capable of mapping its complicated functions and by centralizing neuroscience research into one database.

“Neuroscience is generating exponentially growing volumes of data and knowledge on specific aspects of the healthy and diseased brain, in different species, at different ages,” the HBP’s site said. “However, we still do not have effective strategies to experimentally map the brain across all its levels and functions. Modern supercomputing technology offers a solution, making it possible to integrate the data in detailed computer reconstructed models and simulations of the brain.”

Analyzing this data could make it possible to make learn more about brain diseases, map neurological disorders, and identify patterns and biological predictors. Doctors and researches could then use computer simulations to make medical predictions and perform experiments that can’t be done with animals or humans.

A recent RAND Corporation study found that the cost of caring for patients with dementia in the U.S. is already as expensive as treating cancer or heart disease, and the cost is expected to double by 2040. Yet, the attention and resources allocated to brain health and mental well-being are significantly lower than other areas of medical scientific research.

The HBP is also designed to further computing, in addition to neuroscience and medicine.

“The human brain performs computations inaccessible to the most powerful of today’s computers – all while consuming no more power than a light bulb,” the site said. “Understanding how it does this – the way it computes reliably with unreliable elements, the way the different elements of the brain communicate – can provide the key not only to a completely new category of hardware (Neuromorphic Computing Systems) but to a paradigm shift for computing as a whole.”

This project is massive in scope. The brain has around 100 billion nerve cells and 100 trillion synaptic connections. Right now, brain researchers can only record a few hundred neurons by inserting wire into an animal or human brain to record electrical activity as brain cells communicate with each other.

The BBC estimated that simulating the human brain will require an exaflop computer, which is 10 times more powerful than the Tianhe-2 — the world most powerful supercomputer. An exaflop computer is capable of a billion billion calculations per second.

The HBP is primarily driven by European institutions and researchers. Meanwhile the White House announced a new research initiative in April 2013 that focuses on mapping the human brain. The BRAIN project (Brain Research through Advancing Innovative Neurotechnologies, ha) will receive $100 million in funding when it launches next year.

There is a lot of interest in the relationship between neuroscience and computing right now. The brain is so complicated and generates so much data that idea of bringing those two worlds together, to advance knowledge on each other, only recently began to seem feasible.

The HBP, and China’s Brainnetome were around for years before President Barack Obama announced BRAIN. The brain race could be the next decade’s equivalent of the Space Race, but some have said BRAIN is too limited in scope. 

“As humans we can identify galaxies light-years away, we can study particles smaller than an atom,” Obama said in April, “but we still haven’t unlocked the mystery of the 3 pounds of matter sitting between our ears.”

Unfortunately due to the government shutdown however,  the U.S.’s project is on halt, while across the Atlantic, the HBP is kicking into gear.

If only Congress would use their brains.