Brain Science: state of the art

There’s a huge array of research initiatives taking place around the globe, and they morph in and out of varying degrees of collaboration and shared focus. We review the leaders.

Amidst a global community of academic and commercial research initiatives focused upon achieving a better understanding of the workings of the brain, a few stand out. The Big Daddy of them all is the Brainome Project, promoted by the American Association for the Advancement of Science and involving 80 universities and research centres from 26 countries in Europe, North America, China and Japan, the broad objective is the mapping of the human brain to the neuronal level. Three key organisations are involved:

  • The “Human Brain Project” is creating a virtual brain on a super computer housed in Europe’s University of Heidelberg and led by neuroscientist and professor Henry Markram and his team at Switzerland’s University of Lausanne. Largely funded by the European Union, the Project lists as its objectives the development of six Information & Communication Technology platforms, dedicated respectively to Neuroinformatics, Brain Simulation, High Performance Computing, Medical Informatics, Neuromorphic Computing and Neurorobotics.
  • The “Allen Institute for Brain Science” in Seattle, USA is the brainchild of Microsoft co-founder and visionary philanthropist Paul Allen, and aims to map the cortex of the brain – the centre of our consciousness and reasoning. The ideals of Open Science – sharing data — inspire its confidence that the biggest questions in neuroscience can be addressed in getting to the core of what it means to be human. Their website is, for now, the most accessible in terms of making these “big questions” accessible to everyone – and not just scientists!
  • The “Center for Brain Science” was launched in 2004 at Harvard University and pulls together the full weight of that university and its world-renowned medical school. It aims through study of the “structure and function of neural circuits” to understand better how these circuits vary from person to person and how they govern behaviour, how they change over a lifetime, and how they can lead to neurological and psychiatric disorders.

The “Human Connectome Project” grew out of the Harvard’s Center for Brain Science in 2005 and today, with huge backing from America’s National Institute of Health, represents an extended collaboration between several university and medical facilities in the USA, led by UCLA and Massachusetts General Hospital. Also mapping the brain, this Project is especially cool in its aim to consolidate all its aggregated data graphically, permitting fly-throughs of the major neural pathways to increase understanding of brain function.

Also worthy of a mention is the “Neurological Simulation Research Centre” at the Montreal Neurological Institute and Hospital. Often referred to as “The Neuro”, they worked in association with researchers at Germany’s Forschungszentrum Jülich to create “Big Brain”, a revolutionary 3D digital brain atlas. Launched in June 2013 in an announcement in Science magazine, the imaging capability of Big Brain is 50 times stronger than the best MRI, producing a data set that is over 100,000 times greater. More on the communications side, consolidating and promoting wider interest in brain science activity is “The Dana Foundation”, headquartered in New York City. Self-described as a “gateway to responsible information about the brain”, this is a private philanthropic organisation that supports and promotes brain research through grants as well as with educational and publishing activities. These are by no means the only major initiatives in global brain science, and others will surely emerge as surely as others merge, and still more fade away. In this context it was interesting to spot the news just a few weeks ago (19 March 2014) in Scientific American that the top American and European brain projects are going to “launch a collaboration” later in 2014. Given the jelly-like Venn diagram of who’s doing what in this area, and in what ways any collaboration might work, it is still early days to determine who precisely is going to be doing what. As the article itself relates (and you can see the full text here):

“Details about how closely the US and European programs will coordinate are still nebulous, but US government officials say that the effort will include all of the BRAIN Initiative’s government partners — the US National Institutes of Health (NIH), the National Science Foundation and Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency. Henry Markram, a neuroscientist at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Lausanne (EPFL), who directs the Human Brain Project, says that Israel’s brain initiative will also be involved.”

So watch this space and, in particular of course, watch this space! If you have any comments or suggestions as to how this text might usefully be amended or enhanced, please contact me via the Contact Form located in various places on this website.