Decade-long European research project maps the human brain –

The Human Brain Project (HBP), one of the largest ever EU-supported research initiatives, has taken significant steps in neuroscience by creating an atlas of the human brain to benefit developments within medicine and technology.

The burden of brain diseases results in a global cost to healthcare budgets of €800 billion per year, Commission figures estimate.

A better understanding of the human brain would open the door to innovative treatments for the 165 million Europeans with brain disorders such as Alzheimer’s, epilepsy, depression or stroke, while also improving prevention and treatment for the one in three people the Commission estimates “will suffer from a neurological and/or mental disorder at some point in their lives”.

Now, more than 500 researchers, 155 institutions and €607 million – of which €406 came from EU funding – later, the HBP is coming to a close. After a decade spent combining methods from computing, neuroinformatics and AI to understand and map the human brain – how far did they get?

“If you ask an astronomer or a person in astrophysics how far they have got in terms of mapping the universe, I think we are talking about the same type of question,” Jan Bjaalie, dean of research and innovation at the University of Oslo, head of the Norwegian Neuroinformatics Node, and infrastructure operations director in the HBP directorate since 2018 told Euractiv.

This is not to say Bjaalie is negative about it – quite the contrary. While mapping the brain is a “daunting” task, the HPB has made significant progress across the fields of basic science, medicine and technology.

A turbulent start

Back in 2013, the European Commission announced the initiative, one of four current so-called European Future and Emerging Technologies (FET) flagship projects, as “the world’s largest experimental facility for developing the most detailed model of the brain, for studying how the human brain works and ultimately to develop personalised treatment of neurological and related diseases”.

“This research lays the scientific and technical foundations for medical progress that has the potential to dramatically improve the quality of life for millions of Europeans,” the Commission said, initially announcing that the HBP would receive one billion euro.

However, a protest letter was soon sent to the Commission from a group of neuroscientists claiming that the project was managed poorly and ran the scientific plans off course. This eventually led to a re-evaluation of the goals and a change of management in 2015.

Bjaalie was not as deeply involved in the project back then, but he believes these changes “resulted in a very strong focus on building the research infrastructure”.

Creating a brain atlas

A key achievement of the project was the development of new digital research technologies resulting in a “uniquely detailed” atlas of the human brain, publicly accessible on a platform called EBRAINS, Bjaalie explained.

“The brain must be understood through levels that go from molecules and connections between elements of the brain up to large networks and the whole brain. We need to understand each level, then connect the levels, build something that can simulate it, and see how close that is to what happens in the brain,” he added, saying the HBP has brought “significant progress” in this respect.

Overall, the people behind the project say it has resulted in new insights as well as established new approaches for diagnosis and therapy of brain diseases and developed technological innovations.

For example, an atlas like this can be used in hospital settings, Bjaalie said. In cases of surgery for epilepsy, further understanding of the brain can inform surgeons better and help increase precision during the procedure with predictions from the HBP’s dynamic brain modelling engine, The Virtual Brain.

Advancing technologies

Alongside medical advances, Bjaalie highlighted how the work, in turn, can help develop computing technologies and AI.

“AI started with understanding how neurons work and how they are connected long ago. Now we can inform artificial intelligence again,” he said.

One example of this is looking at the energy consumption of computers. While the human brain has naturally evolved to become exceptionally energy-efficient, traditional computers have not followed suit.

In contrast, neuromorphic computers, designed to mimic the structure and function of the brain, are remarkably more energy-efficient. As part of the HBP, engineers and neuroscientists have worked together to develop more potent neuromorphic systems that significantly diminish energy consumption.

What’s next for European brain research?

Now that the end of HBP has come, the Commission has announced they are working with the member states on a broader initiative.

“Member States have asked for more collaborations and coordination for Brain Health Research through a strategic partnership that would certainly reinforce the position of Europe on the global scene of brain research,” they wrote.

Around the same time as the HBP initiative, brain research projects were launched in the US and Japan, with China, Australia and South Korea also supporting extensive studies.

Bjaalie said research councils in Europe and the Commission are keen to support more brain research in order to keep Europe competitive.

“Of course, we will have to do a lot of work to push this emphasis on brain research in Europe. There are other initiatives coming along, and we don’t want to fall behind,” he said.

(Edited by Giedre Peseckyte/Nathalie Weatherald)

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