The Human Brain Project: a very expensive headache

By AIA Science Director, Dr Andre Menache

On Reflection is an occasional column contributed by a reader. The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily shared or supported in any way by Le News.

Le news English Newspaper Switzerland

By now, most of us have heard of the Human Brain Project, whose aim is to simulate the complete human brain using supercomputers. The project is largely funded by the European Union and overseen by the École Polytechnique Federal de Lausanne (EPFL). This roughly ten year project (2013 – 2024) will attempt to better understand the most complex organ in the universe and also simulate drug treatments for human mental diseases. If this sounds too good to be true it’s probably because it is. The human brain contains around 86 billion nerve cells, each capable of creating thousands of interconnections with other nerve cells, with mind boggling permutations. But the brain is much more than the sum of its parts. Although a supercomputer could hypothetically unravel the way in which the brain does maths, how would a two-dimensional supercomputer simulate human emotion or language, for example?

A reductionist approach to attempt to mimic the most complex organ in the universe is destined to face significant challenge from many corners. In fact, the most severe criticism has come from within the neuroscientific community itself, in the form of an open letter addressed to the European Commission in July of this year, in which several hundred researchers complained of the way in which the project was being managed with threats even of a boycott.

Le News English newspaper SwitzerlandIn addition to the internal conflicts, the Human Brain Project is proving a costly headache for the EU taxpayer, with its one billion euro price tag. One of the lesser known facets of the project is the significant amount of resources devoted to the study of the mouse brain. This curiosity driven research (aka “basic research”) is likely to yield interesting data, but its relevance to the human brain is highly questionable. The mouse brain weighs just half a gram compared with the one and a half kilo human brain and is definitely not a scaled down version of the latter. Mouse and man are separated by 70 million years of evolution. The effects of this evolutionary divergence are evident in differences between form and function of body systems, starting at gene level.

The general public is largely unaware of what “basic research” actually entails. However, a large survey funded by the European Commission, published in 2006 showed that a clear majority (68%) of EU citizens were opposed to basic research involving the use of animals.

Even more worrying for the citizens of Europe is the fact that such vast sums of money are spent on “interesting” research while human patients suffer as a result of budget shortages. A case in point is that of Professor Hugues Duffau, a French neurosurgeon and recipient of the equivalent of the Nobel Prize in his field, who has pioneered a technique for removing brain tumours in awake patients. His staggering success rate means that he is highly sought after to train teams of neurosurgeons in his technique. Professor Duffau has told me that resources in the EU are sorely lacking to adequately train neurosurgeons. He also told me that he had not received any funding, nor had he been approached by those responsible for the Human Brain Project.

Andre Menache is with Animal Consultants International and has been an active campaigner for the past 30 years mainly in South Africa, Israel and the UK. He also advises the Geneva government.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: