Human Brain Project getting a makeover: will it be enough?

Last month’s news about the European-led Human Brain Project (HBP), summarised in The Scientific American with the title “Human Brain Project Gets a Rethink”, concluded years of growing disquiet among the European neurology community about the aims of the project (too narrow, not enough biology) and its governance (too autocratic). In what seems as much a makeover as a rethink, an independent committee identified the correctives that may help. Whatever our species may or may not know about brain science, we can get our heads around good governance.

The problem remains that we are much less steady with the brain science. It is often pointed out that the moon programme of half a century ago required a massive focusing of will and resources but, comparatively speaking, not a lot of new science. The complexities of rocket science have always been joked about as inaccessible to the common man, but a lot of uncommon men and women knew what they needed to know, as Neil Armstrong was pleased to discover.

The biological bridge between the physiology and workings of the brain, and the psychology of behavioural outputs, however, remains shrouded in mist. There is no informing theory regarding the transition between electrical stimulations within the blancmange between our ears, and our self-aware musings on chickens and eggs. We know that somewhere along that transitioning pathway is the sparking of consciousness, but there remains no agreement among our top minds as to what that is, or indeed that the problem is actually a “hard” one, or not. If the HBP has sorted the autocracy AND restored cognitive and systems biology to the programme curriculum, that has to be for the better.

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