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One Billion Euros And The Deepest Questions Drive Huge New Human Brain Project

Existential questions are on the table
Existential questions are on the table
Florence Rosier

GENEVA - It's called simply, "Human Brain Project" (HBP), and it is as audacious as it is ambitious: 256 individual labs scattered across 24 countries in order to create a virtual human brain.

Though only officially awarded a one-billion-euro grant Monday by the European Union, the debate around the endeavor has been brewing for years within the scientific community -- and it's never been short on passion. How could it be otherwise, given the stated objective?

“Understanding the brain is humanity’s last great dream. We are taking about who we are!” observed Alexandre Pouget, Neuroscience professor at Geneva University. "The public is, of course, fascinated."

For starters, the human brain is one of the most complex creations in the universe, composed of 85 billion nerve cells - or neurons, each of which share from 1000 to 10,000 contacts - or synapses, with its neighbors. Its very performances are a challenge to our own intelligence. We can legitimately ask ourselves if it’s feasible to recreate it. Is there a point to it? It’s a tricky task indeed, trying to detect the links between reasoning, a behavior or an emotion and the 100,000 billion synaptic signals generated every second by our grey matter.

The Human Brain Project put its money forth to tackle such complexity: futuristic and universal for some, utopist and reductionist for others. This debate isn’t new, per se. It’s been raging between the dualists who believe in a separation between matter and spirit, and the materialists who see a spirit emanating from neuronal interactions. The debate now revolves mostly around the reductionist questions: How can something as complex as the brain be reduced to Matrioshkas of molecular, physiological or mathematic principles.

The first to have dared to embrace the synthetic brain adventure is the English mathematician Alan Turing, who back in 1936, built this machine called the Human Computer, used for analyzing sequences of symbols, and in doing so mimed the human way of calculating. This “Turing Machine” is perceived as the ancestor of our modern computers. It’s a precursor of the “formal neuron networks,” also known as “a group of binary entities reproducing the organization of biological neuronal networks,” in computer science lingo.

In the 1950s, biologists Alan Hodgkin and Andrew Huxley discovered the mechanism of potential action on the neuronal level, a first step towards the Hodgkin-Huxley equations, still used to simulate neurons. A decade later, the American Wilfrid Rall found the equation for the diffusion of electric pulses in neurons: the "cable theory,” still in use nowadays.

Mind blowing

The Human Brain project comes from three original programs: the 2005 Blue Brain project by Henry Makram of Switzerland's Lausanne Polytechnical Federal School, with the help of IBM; Facets and BrainScales developed over the past decade through a European consortium.

Henry Makram is the charismatic leader of the Human Project, a brilliant neurologist who has impressed some and rubbed others the wrong way. Egos were hurt, doors were slammed, but the main controversy runs much deeper: “The world of neuroscience isn’t necessarily supportive of the Blue Brain strategy, nor it is of Henry Markram’s creed: an industrialized neuroscience,” explains an expert.

According to Yves Frégnac, director of the neuroscience, information and complexity Unit of the French scientific research center CNRS says: “a problem not taken care of by most brain simulators remains attached, however, to the nature of the whole brain’s spontaneous activity. It’s irregular and persevering, this “cortical song” may release permanence or sound the return of bits of memory.”

Less famous but just as innovative, here are Facets and BranScales which focused on interdisciplinarity. They gathered neuroscientists, modelers, micro-electronics graduates and physicist from 15 to 20 different countries. Their goal: “Give a "pragmatic" simulation of how the brain works, then build real-life electronic circuits miming the rules and adapting skills of the living,” explains Yves Frégnac, who participated in the conception of both projects with Karlheinz Meier of Heidelberg University.

In the same competition, the Americans of Synapse, financed by the US Army, have their objectives expressed in time: simulating a mouse’s brain (one year), a cat’s (two years) or five for a primate!

Where does communication fit in between decision makers and researchers. “There were some initial "marketing errors." Too many things were promised,” says Gilles Laurent, from Max Planck Institute for Brain Research, in Frankfurt. Among these excessive promises was the one claiming this project would cure neurodegenerative diseases.

Developing societal and health applications appears to be what Europe expects from these programs. “Diseases of the nervous system cost 800 billion euros each year in Europe,” noted neurologist and co-director responsible of the Human Brain project, Richard Frackowiak. "The HBP should cost 100 million euros a year over ten years. If we could reduce even by 1% the cost of brain diseases in Europe, we could finance a thousand HBPs!”

Professor at the Collège de France and cognitive neuroscience expert affiliated with the HBP, Stanislas Dehaene, is enthusiastic about the project. “We will notably study the human uniqueness: why does the human brain have unique functions that can’t be found in the animal kingdom, such as language, the capacity to deduce thoughts out of others?”

One of the great looming questions surrounding a synthetic brain, is how to account for doubt and risk, inherent to a modern theory on how human brain matter functions. According to Alexandre Pouget: “Our brain represents knowledge as probabilities that can be manipulated to acquire new information.”

Probabilistic or not, our thoughts will without a doubt remain obscure, strange and inaccessible for a long time. “The Universe wasn’t pregnant with life nor with man’s biosphere,” wrote Jacques Monod in Chance and Necessity (Le Seuil, 1970). “Our number came up at the Monte Carlo tables. Is it surprising to reflect on how strange our condition is having just won a one-in-a-billion hand?”

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