How much science has failed to unravel the mysteries of the human brain


Even if it is possible to record all the spikes from all the neurons at once, he argues, a brain is no different: in order to bind the dots well, you need to simultaneously record the external stimuli that exposed to the brain, as well as the behavior of the organism. And he argues that we need to understand the brain on a macroscopic level before trying to decode what the bursts of individual neurons mean.

Some have concerns about the impact of centralized control of the fields. Cornelia Bargmann, a neuroscientist at Rockefeller University, worries it will disrupt the research led by individual investigators. (Bargmann was later tapped to lead the working group on the BRAIN Initiative.)

There is no unanimous theory of how the brain works, and not everyone in the field agrees that building a simulated brain is the best way to study it.

While the U.S. initiative is asking for input from scientists to guide its direction, the EU project that is undecided is much higher, with Markram at the helm. But just like Noah Hutton documenting his 2020 film In Silico, Markram’s many plans soon came to an end. As an undergraduate studying neuroscience, Hutton was taught to read Markram’s papers and he was impressed by his proposal to mimic the human brain; when he started making documentary films, he decided to recount the effort. He soon learned, however, that a billion-dollar business is better known for fighting and shifting goals than successful science.

In Silico portrayed Markram as a charismatic leader who had to make bold claims about the future of neuroscience in order to attract funding to fulfill his specific vision. But the project was chaotic from the beginning with a fundamental issue: there was no one, agreed theory of how the brain works, and not everyone in the field agreed that building a simulated brain is best way to learn it. It didn’t take long for differences to emerge in the EU project.

In 2014, hundreds of experts across Europe wrote a letter citing concerns about governance, funding mechanisms, and transparency in Human Brain Project. Scientists feel that Markram’s purpose is untimely and too narrow and does not include funding for researchers looking for other ways to study the brain.

“What would surprise me if, if he succeeds and opens it up and the simulated brain moves, what do you know?” Terry Sejnowski, a computational neuroscientist at the Salk Institute who serves on the advisory committee for the BRAIN Initiative, told me. “Simulation is just as complicated as the brain.”

The board of directors of the Human Brain Project voted to reshuffle the organization and leadership in early 2015, replacing the three-member executive committee headed by Markram with a 22-member golying board. Christoph Ebell, a Swiss businessman with a background in science diplomacy, has been appointed executive director. “When I replaced it, the project was at a crisis point,” he said. “People are obviously wondering if the project will go ahead.”

But a few years later he was also out, following a “strategic disagreement” with the project’s host institution. The project now focuses on providing a new computer research infrastructure to help neuroscientists store, process, and analyze large amounts of data — unsystematic data collection is an issue for the field. -and developed 3D atlase and brain software for creating simulations.

Meanwhile, the U.S. BRAIN Initiative, is undergoing its own changes. Early on, in 2014, addressing the concerns of scientists and recognizing the limits of what could be done, it became something more practical, focusing developing technologies to examine the brain.

New day

Those changes are already beginning to have consequences-even if they aren’t the innovation envisioned by the founders of every major brain project.

Last year, the Human Brain Project released a A 3D digital map that combines different organizational aspects of the human brain at the millimeter and micrometer level. It’s actually a Google Earth for the brain.



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