The European Human Brain Project Accelerating Neurological Research
Professor Bogdan Draganski
Hailed as one of the most ambitious neuroscience projects in the world, the European Human Brain Project (HBP) launched in October 2013. The aim is to provide meaningful insight into how the human brain operates, enabling more efficient and effective research through a large neuroscience database with extraordinary computing power.
The project is coordinated through the Ecole polytechnique fédérale de Lausanne (EFPL) by neuroscientist Henry Markram with co-directors Karlheinz Meier of Heidelberg University, and Richard Frackowiak of Centre Hospitalier Universitaire Vaudois (CHUV) and the University of Lausanne (UNIL). Initially, 130 European research institutions are participating. The plan envisions global expansion with a continuously evolving database. Selected by the European Union as an FET Flagship project, it has an estimated budget of €1.2 billion.
Currently there are 11 HBP research pillars, spanning medical informatics, neuroinformatics, neurorobotics, high-performance computing, neuromorphic computing, and brain simulation. Not only is the research breadth impressive, but the predicted pace of development will be transformative. While researchers typically estimate an average of 17 years for translational research to reach clinical practice, the HBP hopes to significantly accelerate knowledge through a comprehensive neurological database developed within ten years. However, HBP facilitating research may lead to changes in clinical practice much sooner.
The timescale is not an aspiration, with results driven through strict milestones and monitoring across all pillars and sub-projects. Professor Bogdan Draganski, Principal Investigator of HBP Sub-Project 8: Medical Informatics said, “Every three months we have to provide deliverables. The monitoring is strict in a positive way. At the end of the Medical Informatics ramp-up phase we have to have this platform in place.” The initial phase is planned to last 18 months from its October 2013 launch. Phase Two is considered the core phase, expected to last four years and will account for most of the investment. “Thirty to one-hundred percent of the provided money will be used for open calls. Researchers can submit their projects and benefit from funding from Europe and their national research agencies,” Draganski said. The final phase is slotted to last two years and will be self-sustaining without additional big investment. The HBP will continue to expand and evolve for the foreseeable future.
THE MAIN GOAL OF THE PROJECT IS TO PROVIDE THE TECHNOLOGICAL PLATFORM THAT WILL MERGE KNOWLEDGE IN A FLEXIBLE WAY, INCLUDING NEW PAPERS AND RESEARCH. IT’S NOT STATIC.
For decades neurology has remained a somewhat inexact science. Draganski notes that in the early days of neurology, physicians based diagnoses on a subjective impression of a patient, rather than definitive scientific evidence. With the emergence of genetic sequencing, it has become clear that the same syndromes can have different genotypes, while the same genotype may have different clinical phenotypes. “We are caught in-between 18th century thinking and modern types of diagnoses based on genetics, imaging, etc. We have to merge all of this already existing knowledge and see how we can profit from this,” he said.
While there is a large amount of data accumulated, genetic nuances and uncoordinated data can cloud effective patient treatment. Draganski highlights that a key goal of the HBP Medical Informatics pillar is to benefit from existing data including brain imaging, lab work, genetic information and other neurological content. “At the moment there is a lot of information out there, but it is developed like a cottage industry with little communication between labs and hospitals,” Draganski said. “We are building a framework that takes existing data, in an appropriate and secure way, then analyses this data. This is provided in an interactive way, so the end-user has the opportunity to do further analysis. The goal is to merge data at different levels and link it all within one framework.” He stresses that patient data will be anonymised with end-users unable to tap into hospital databases. Researchers will be able to access much larger patient cohorts for statistical and medical analyses. Cross linkage of different data inputs (brain scans, lab work and genetic information) will add to the richness of the database.
Perhaps most important of all, the HBP will be a constantly developing and expanding database. Professor Draganski said, “The main goal of the project is to provide the technological platform that will merge knowledge in a flexible way, including new papers and research. It’s not static.”
Looking forward, Draganski envisions a multitude of possibilities from the HBP. “One aspect is the simulation pillar. When we have good data, we can establish models of diseases and responses to particular drugs. Therapeutic trials can be simulated on the basis of this data. In a very ecological way, even before starting trials, we can simulate the various effects. Rather than defining by the clinical diagnoses, we will define them through the biological disease signatures.” He notes that human trials for several neurological diseases, such as Alzheimer’s, have been abandoned due to low efficacy. Neurosurgery is another area where the HBP can optimise surgical planning. For deep brain stimulation, it will facilitate predicting outcomes. In the future simulations may enable researchers to avoid unnecessary expense and time on treatments that will not be effective for specific patient populations.
According to the HBP submission to the European Commission, once researchers the HBP should provide objective, biologically-grounded methodologies to detect and classify diseases which will lead to a deeper understanding of their causes and enable the development of more effective and personalised treatments. This will result in better patient outcomes and lowered healthcare costs.
Intriguing advances in medical devices also may be on the horizon. HBP Sub-Project 9 focuses on Neuromorphic Computing Systems (NCS), developing hardware devices that operate on simplified human brain models. This research could propel current work in non-invasive brain-machine interfaces, enabling paralysed patients to operate wheelchairs or amputees move sophisticated prostheses via thought alone.
The HBP may be the first large scale neurological project that enables cross-linking multiple data sets, including genetic information, for truly personalised treatment. Professor Draganski said, “Now we have to turn this genetic knowledge into patient benefits. We are miles ahead in what we know versus what we can do for our patients and that is very frustrating.” Within a decade, HBP researchers may cause a paradigm shift in neurological practice through technical innovation.
The Human Brain Project Begins (2013) Available at: http://www.forbes.com/sites/jenniferhicks/2013/10/07/the-human-brain-project-begins/
The Human Brain Project Wins Top European Science Funding (2013) Available at: http://actu.epfl.ch/news/the-human-brain-project-wins-top-european-science-/
The Human Brain Project (2014) Available at: https://www.humanbrainproject.eu/
Measuring time: getting research from bench to bedside (2013) Available at: http://www.insight.mrc.ac.uk/2013/12/17/measuring-time-getting-research-from-bench-to-bedside/
The answer is 17 years, what is the question: understanding time lags in translational research (2011) Available at: http://jrs.sagepub.com/content/104/12/510.full
The Human Brain Project – Report to the European Commission (2012) Available at: http://ec.europa.eu/research/participants/portal/doc/call/h2020/h2020-fetflag-2014/1595110-6pilots-hbp-publicreport_en.pdf
Wheelchair Makes the Most of Brain Control (2010) Available at: http://www.technologyreview.com/news/420756/wheelchair-makes-the-most-of-brain-control/