Oct 11th, 2013
A long term collaborative neuroscience project conducted by more than 135 institutions began recently.
Human Brain Project
The project, which is being co-funded by the EU, is expected to take 10 years and is being called the Human Brain Project, or HBP. It is being likened to the Human Genome Project, which resulted in the completion of the entire genetic code sequence of human beings, after more than a decade of work by thousands of scientists.
The main goal is to create a computer simulation of the brain by collecting all of the available neuroscience data and information and using it to better understand how the brain works. Researchers plan to build a brain research database in which published neuroscience papers are gathered and archived to allow a more in depth and integrated exploration of the brain.
Scientists involved in the Human Brain Project are located mainly in Europe and the venture is estimated to cost approximately 1 billion pounds, or nearly $1.6 billion dollars. The project has drawn some criticism for the cost, saying it will lessen funding in other areas. Others, however, believe it holds the potential for some groundbreaking discoveries.
Potential for Major Breakthroughs
Steve Furber, Professor of Computer Engineering at the School of Computer Science at the University of Manchester, explained his support for the project: "There are plenty of grounds for scepticism about whether the project will deliver a fairly complete understanding of how the brain works. But we will make progress even if we don't achieve that ultimate goal and that could yield major benefits for medicine, computing and for society."
Since we know so little about the brain, it would be impossible to create a complete simulation of the brain. Scientists plan, instead, to create numerous simulations that represent different brain processes and functions.
A main focal point of the project is to address the complexity of brain diseases and examine the connections between different conditions. As diseases like Alzheimer’s, dementia, and other forms of cognitive decline continue to affect more people every year, it is important that scientists understand the workings of and links between the various diseases before they are able to effectively treat them. Alzheimer’s and dementia affect more than 5 million people across the United States. In the United Kingdom, the disease affects more than 800,000 people.
Professor Henry Markram, Director of the Human Brain Project at Ecole Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne in Switzerland, explained the importance of gathering all of the data and information: "We should begin to understand what makes the human brain unique, the basic mechanisms behind cognition and behaviour, how to objectively diagnose brain diseases, and to build new technologies inspired by how the brain computes," he said.
Cost of Dementia
Though $1 billion seems a hefty sum for just one single project, this long term project is expected to bring new advancements to both the scientific and medical fields that could potentially have drastic effects on the way we approach brain research.
In the United States alone, family caregivers provide an estimated $450 billion in unpaid care every single year. More than $216 billion of that care is for family members with Alzheimer’s or another form of dementia. These high costs are taking a toll on the nation as a whole, which is struggling to sustain its social programs under the immense burden of taxpayer-funded care. Any breakthrough that has the potential to decrease the incidence of Alzheimer’s and dementia has the potential to tremendously affect the nation in a positive way.