Unlocking the secrets of the brain could bring incredible economic spoils from new therapies, information technologies and artificial intelligence. Those are the lofty goals of The Human Brain Project--a big science endeavor arguably on par with initial stabs at mapping the human genome--which last month scored €1 billion ($1.35 billion) in committed support from the European Union.
The EU expects the project to yield the most detailed computer model of the brain, with plans calling for the largest experimental facility of its kind in the world. And the endeavor will tap experts from almost 200 research institutes across at least 15 EU member states. The project is part of the Seventh Framework Programme for bolstering economic growth in the EU.
With the 10-year funding commitment, the project has an extraordinarily difficult mission, as brain functions involve billions of neurons and thousands of genes. According to data from the project's proposal, simulating an entire human brain would overwhelm any supercomputer available today, requiring one that is 1,000 times more powerful than the world's mightiest computer.
The EU's big gamble on the project could deliver huge dividends, however. Poor understanding of Alzheimer's disease and other neurological conditions has stymied progress in developing new therapies, and the project hopes to shed light on mysteries of the complex organ to bolster development of new personalized treatments for dementia and other CNS conditions. Beyond biomedicine, the EU foresees the project delivering new information technologies based on brain circuitry as well as intelligent robotics.
The Human Brain Project shares some common territory with the bold goals of billionaire Paul Allen's Seattle-based neuroscience institute, which has built detailed computer models of the human and mouse brains that chart the activity of genes in certain locations of the complex organ. Its next round of projects includes detailed maps of complex brain functions such as consciousness and memory.
Both the Allen Institute for Brain Science and The Human Brain Project have long journeys ahead. And as hapless CNS programs from drug giants have shown, success is never a given with risky neuroscience missions.