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Human Brain Research: Global Initiatives – An Update

Fotolia_38342751_S-blog4In previous posts we have introduced the topic of brain research, attempted to explain its importance, summarized global initiatives focused on brain research, and described some of the new tools and technologies being used in brain research. In this post, we provide an update on the progress (or lack thereof) being made as a result of the global initiatives.

First, we focus on the “US BRAIN Initiative” that was launched in the spring of 2013. Since then, Congress has appropriated significant and increased levels of funding each year for this initiative. For 2018 this amounts to $400 million. The National Institutes of Health (NIH); working in partnership with government agencies, universities, foundations, and industry; uses this funding to award research grants in seven specific aspects of brain research. Information about funding, the alliances, and summaries of past and current grants can be found on the NIH Web site https://www.braininitiative.nih.gov/. It appears that the US BRAIN initiative is well funded, active, and starting to produce results.

Next, we turn to the European Union’s effort, also launched in 2013 – the “Human Brain Project” (HBP). Here, the news isn’t as positive, as the title of a 2015 article in Scientific American indicates: “Why the Human Brain Project Went Wrong—and How to Fix It. Two years in, a $1-billion-plus effort to simulate the human brain is in disarray…” (1) In a nutshell, the EU awarded $1.3 billion to one neuroscientist as the project leader for one big project – his. And things quickly fell apart. This led to a radical overhaul in management and project structure. As an IEEE article states “The massive €1 billion project has shifted focus from simulation to informatics.” (2) The article goes on to explain: “After a rocky, controversial start, the HBP is now building infrastructure that includes high-performance computing, data analytics, and simulation and modeling software.” But are things better? It’s hard to tell. However, a couple of things are clear. There is significant money available and there are a number of active research projects. Visit the Web site yourself and decide: https://www.humanbrainproject.eu/en/.

Now, an update on the smaller Japanese effort – the “Brain/MINDS Project,” initiated in 2014. A detailed description and interim update was published in 2016 which outlines structure, objectives, projects, and actual funding ($365 million spread over 10 years). (3) More information can be found on the Project’s Web site: http://brainminds.jp/en/. From all indications, the project has been active since 2014 and producing results.

Finally, we turn to China and their “China Brain Project” (announced in mid 2016). Detailed information on this “project” is difficult to find, but there are at least two specific actions:

  1. In the summer of 2017, China announced the opening of the HUST-Suzhou Institute for Brainsmatics in Suzhou China. With a 5-year budget of $67 million and plans to hire around 120 scientists and technicians, the objective of the Institute is to “make industrial-scale high-resolution brain mapping a standard tool for neuroscience.” (4) The Allen Institute for Brain Science, the Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory in New York, and Stanford University in California have formed partnerships with this new center.
  2. In March of this year, the Chinese Institute for Brain Research in Beijing was officially established. Around 50 researchers will have laboratories at the new center, and external grants will support around 100 investigators throughout China. The Center will be a partnership between Beijing’s premier biomedical institutions, among them the Chinese Academy of Sciences, the Academy of Military Medical Sciences, Peking University and Tsinghua University. (5)

In addition, other programs and centers around China are being created. Funding appears to be available for these multiple efforts and centers, but finding enough researchers is likely to be a challenge. However, if China is successful in meeting this challenge, they may establish a clear leadership position in this technology area.

So, is understanding the human brain a race or a global partnership? Only time will tell. Your thoughts?

  1. Stefan Theil, “Why the Human Brain Project Went Wrong—and How to Fix It,” Scientific American, October 1, 2015, https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/why-the-human-brain-project-went-wrong-and-how-to-fix-it/
  2. Megan Scudellari, “The Human Brain Project Reboots: A Search Engine for the Brain Is in Sight,” IEEE SPECTRUM, June 21, 2017, https://spectrum.ieee.org/computing/hardware/the-human-brain-project-reboots-a-search-engine-for-the-brain-is-in-sight
  3. Hideyuki Okano et al, “Brain/MINDS: A Japanese National Brain Project for Marmoset Neuroscience,” Neuron 92, November 2, 2016, https://www.cell.com/neuron/pdf/S0896-6273(16)30719-X.pdf
  4. David Cyranoski, Nature, August 17, 2017, https://www.nature.com/news/china-launches-brain-imaging-factory-1.22456
  5. David Cyranoski, Nature, April 5, 2018, “Beijing launches pioneering brain-science centre: China’s much-anticipated brain initiative finally starts to take shape,” https://www.nature.com/articles/d41586-018-04122-3 
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