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Why the great brain simulation could be doomed

In September 2011, a group of neuroscientists and nanoscientists met on a picturesque English estate for a symposium to bring together knowledge from their two areas of expertise.

The neurobiologist Rafael Yuste from Columbia University and the geneticist George Church from Harvard University presented a proposal that did not sound exactly modest: They wanted to map the activity of the entire human brain down to the last detail – that is, down to the description of individual neurons and their circuits. With this knowledge, brain diseases such as Alzheimer’s, autism, schizophrenia, depression and traumatic brain injuries should be better treated. And it should help answer one of the big questions in science: What happens in the brain in order for consciousness to arise?

In the magazine Neuron Yuste, Chruch and their colleagues describe their ambitious “Brain Activity Map Project” as “a large-scale, international, public project that aims to capture all of neural activity and completely reconstruct neural circuits”. As the Human genome project a decade earlier, the brain project would lead to “entirely new fields of work and commercial ventures,” they wrote.

New technologies would be needed to achieve this goal, and this is where nanoscientists came in. Back then, the researchers were able to record the activity of only a few hundred neurons at a time – but with around 86 billion neurons in the human brain, it was like watching “one pixel at a time on television,” recalled Yuste in 2017. The researchers wanted to develop ways to measure “every single action potential (spike) of every neuron” in order to understand how complex thoughts arise when these neurons fire.

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The bold proposal fascinated the Obama administration and established the in 2013 BRAIN Initiative (Brain Research through Advancing Innovative Neurotechnologies). President Obama called it the “next big American project”.

But it wasn’t the first ambitious brain research project. A few years earlier, Henry Markram, neuroscientist at the École Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne in Switzerland, had set himself an even more ambitious goal: to create a computer simulation of a living human brain. Markram wanted to develop a fully digital, three-dimensional model that depicts each individual cell and trace the numerous connections between these cells. “We can do this within 10 years”, he announced in 2009 during a lecture at one of the annual TED innovation conferences.

In January 2013, a few months before the American project was announced, the EU granted Markram $ 1.3 billion to build his brain model. The projects in the USA and the EU triggered similar complex research projects in countries such as Japan, Australia, Canada, China, South Korea and Israel. A new era in neuroscience had dawned.

A decade later, in 2023, the US project will expire, and the EU project to build a digital brain is also close to completion. How did it go? Have we started unraveling the secrets of the human brain? Or have we spent a decade chasing a vision that is as elusive as ever at a million dollar expense?

There was no lack of criticism in either project from the start. EU scientists feared that the costly Markram project would displace other neuroscientific research. And even at the original 2011 meeting where Yuste and Church presented their ambitious vision, many of their colleagues argued that it was simply not possible to map the complex activities of billions of human neurons. Others said it was doable, but it would cost too much money and generate more data than the researchers could handle.

In a sharply worded article in the magazine Scientific American warned Partha Mitra, a neuroscientist at the Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory, in 2013 before the “irrational exuberance” behind the Brain Activity Map, and questioned the sense of the project.

Even if it were possible to record all the spikes of all neurons at once, he argued, a brain does not exist in isolation: in order to connect everything correctly, one must simultaneously record external stimuli to which the brain is exposed and the behavior of the organism. He argued that one must first learn to understand the brain on a macroscopic level before attempting to decipher what the firing of the individual neurons means.

Others were concerned that research in these areas was becoming too centralized. Cornelia Bargmann, a neuroscientist at Rockefeller University, feared that research conducted by individual scientists would be marginalized too much. (Bargmann was soon appointed co-leader of the BRAIN initiative working group.)

While the US initiative relied on the input of the individual scientists to determine the direction, the EU project with Markram at the top was much more focused from top to bottom. But like Noah Hutton in his Film “In Silico” Documented from 2020, Markram’s big plans soon came to nothing. As a neuroscience student, Hutton read Markrams’ work and was impressed by his idea of ​​simulating the human brain. So he decided to document the project in a film. However, he soon realized that the multi-billion dollar company was more characterized by internal disputes and changing objectives than by groundbreaking scientific discoveries.

“In Silico” portrays Markram as a charismatic leader who had to make bold claims about the future of neuroscience in order to raise funds to make his vision a reality. However, the project was hampered by one major problem from the start: there is no one-size-fits-all theory of how the brain works, and not all experts agreed that building a simulated brain is the best way to study it. It did not take long for these differences to emerge in the context of the EU project.

In 2014, hundreds of experts from across Europe wrote a letter expressing concerns about the control, funding and transparency of the Human Brain Project. Scientists felt that Markram’s goal was premature, too narrow, and would exclude researchers looking to explore other avenues of study of the brain from funding.

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