Brain Simulation on Hold?

The future of the Human Brain Project stagnates after 360+ researchers sign a damning letter reporting of ‘substantial failures’ within the project

EVER since humanity’s infancy, we have continually sought to understand the natural world and all that resides in it. Though time and time again, unravelling the human brain has always proved itself to be a tall order. This mostly due to the brain’s vastness and sheer complexity, in spite of its seemingly mundane appearance.

However in recent years, advancements within physics, biochemistry, and psychology have catapulted scientific research forward like never before. This progress in Neuroscience can be felt through ambitious ‘Big Science’ projects such as the Human Brain Project (HBP), and its American equivalent; the BRAIN initiative. All of which undertake a herculean task of attempting to simulate the brain (in its entirety) through a super-computer. But one pertinent question remains. Is our current understanding too much at a primitive stage for us to undertake such research?

A biological brain functions in-vitro within organisms by interacting with natural stimuli. It’s a dynamic system that changes and reacts over time, which is described by neuroscientists as ‘plasticity’. It is therefore why many have concluded that the brain simply is far too complicated to simulate at present time.

Over ambition

And so, all of this growing scepticism has amounted to a recent uproar at the HBP. In an open letter to the European Commission, over 360 researchers highlighted several causes for concern with the direction of the projection, pointing at the lack of openness, flexibility, and mismanagement of the project as a whole. But most importantly, many believe that this over-ambitious endeavour may indeed harm large-scale projects in the future.

If they promise the politicians cures for dementia or miraculous breakthroughs in artificial intelligence, but don’t really deliver them, it might have a negative impact on the whole funding of neuroscience in the future — and that would be a disaster”, writes Sir Colin Blakemore, professor of neuroscience at the University of London, who is also one of the many co-signers in the letter.

By any measure, this does not spell the end for brain simulation research in our current era. The BRAIN Initiative, a similar effort from the US Government remains unshaken, albeit facing similar logistic challenges. IBM also attempted a simulation in 2012, called SyNAPSE. It is clear that the future is bright. But if neuroscience can learn from this mutiny at the HBP, it’s that science must be realistic with its efforts.

Written by Ash Chetri. This piece was originally submitted as part of The Economist’s internship application. Limit: 400 Words.

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