“The members of the HBP are saddened by the open letter posted on neurofuture.eu” (updated x2)

Truly, the Human Brain Project has become sad ūüė¶ Here is their response to the neurofuture petition that I talked about on Monday (in PDF only, for some reason):

The members of the HBP are saddened by the open letter posted on neurofuture.eu on 7 July 2014, as we feel that it divides rather than unifies our efforts to understand the brain. However, we recognize that the signatories have important concerns about the project…

What are the concerns of the open letter? The open letter expresses the concern that these goals are so unrealistic that they will damage all of neuroscience, and states that not enough is known to take on such a challenge. We share this uncertainty. However we contend that no one really knows how much neuroscience data is currently available because it has never been organized, and that no-one even knows how much data is needed to begin such an endeavour. Reconstructing and simulating the human brain is a vision, a target; the benefits will come from the technology needed to get there. That technology, developed by the HBP, will benefit all of neuroscience as well as related fields. Many other areas of science have demonstrated that simulation can be a tool to create new knowledge, not just to confirm existing results.

Take that for what you will; it’s a fairly corporate/academic response. Meanwhile, neurofuture has a comments section which is fairly interesting. Here are some good ones:


The first is scientific: the leadership of the Human Brain Project has no experience in creating mathematical formalisms for representation of dynamical systems on multiple temporal and spatial scales. Without such formalisms, it is very unlikely that the complexity of neural models will be manageable, and the existing ad-hoc methods for modeling will remain firmly in place. The project statement on "Mathematical and Theoretical Foundations of Brain Research" claims that the theoretical research will magically come from "outside" the Human Brain Project but this appears to be mostly magical thinking. The current organization structure makes it obvious that independent thought from outside cannot possibly penetrate the upper echelons of power of the Human Brain Project. Which brings me to my second point. The second issue is organizational: the Blue Brain Project has earned a reputation of secrecy and extremely hierarchical authoritarian approach to scientific management, which suggests that rather than the stated goal of unbiased and objective collection of data and tools, the project is likely to result in promoting the agendas and pet project of a small group of people at the top of the hierarchy. There simply is no evidence for an open-minded and exploratory culture in the existing Blue Brain Project, and there is no chance for such culture to emerge without a complete remake of the organization structure, from pyramid to a flat decentralized structure. Without a way to promote diversity in thinking, the Human Brain Project will mostly be about control and power, rather than any meaningful scientific goals.

July 7, 2014, 2:07 p.m.
Ivan Raikov. Okinawa Institute of Science and Technology. Japan


Research on the human brain of this magnitude should be inclusive of all approaches and technologies that have been providing advancements on understanding the brain. The current suggested approach of a bottom up simulation is akin to trying to understand the laws of gases by simulating the collisions of an Avogadro number (6.022√ó10^{23}) of particles. This is unnecessary and also fruitless: there was thermodynamics before statistical mechanics and even the latter does not derive the laws of gases from simulations; it uses first principles, validated against the phenomenological theory of thermodynamics. For the brain, the approach should also be two-pronged: a top-down (from function and behavior to structure)-- "the thermodynamics" part, and a bottom up (neuronal level interactions)-- the "statistical mechanics" part. Simulations aid both directions, but they are only useful within the context of experimental evidence.

July 7, 2014, 9:40 p.m.
Zoltan Toroczkai. University of Notre Dame. United States

Personally, I considered applying to one of the partner-projects, but found the goal to be unclear and the decision process to be absolutely not independent, I therefore considered this would be a pure waste of time. If Europe wants to move on in this area of research, then they do not only need to focus on learning more about the human brain, but also using it to do something useful with. Generally, a lot of this work is done at a very low level, while higher level understanding may be sufficient to do other things with, e.g. neural networks have been around for ages, while we actually don't properly understand how they work in the brain. There are however other models of the how the human brain works that are at a higher level and seem to work pretty well. The project should cover more work that is around using the outcomes of or deals with creating a human brain without making a one-by-one copy of the brain itself, while still offering the same functionality.

July 8, 2014, 9:23 a.m.
Wim Melis. University of Greenwich. United Kingdom

It is surprising that in a project whose goals are to simulate the human brain, a developmental part is totally missing. Thinking that the long childhood observed in the human species has nothing to do with the cognitive success of this species is neglecting one of the main characteristic of the studied species and of its "educated" brain. This lack of developmental studies, both in humans and animals, reveals a major scientific flaw. It misses the opportunity to understand the organizing principles of the human brain and its specificities compared to other animals, and to develop new learning algorithms based on the understanding of the mechanisms used by the fantastic learner who is the human child. 
Furthermore given the clinical and societal issues pushed forward to justify HBP, it is a strategic mistake not to include developmental studies as numerous neurologic and psychiatric diseases have their origin during development (e.g. drug addiction, autism, schizophrenia, epilepsia), and consequences of preterm births (6 to 10% of births, 15 million babies each year in the world) and of other brain insults, neural and cognitive developmental deficits (global and specific), impact of low SES on cognitive development are concerning an important percentage of our fellow citizens (e.g. 20% of the young adults are described as non-efficient readers in national French evaluations!) preventing them to obtain a correct and stable work.  Without research on human and animal brain development, it is doubtful that solutions for these problems will be proposed whereas the economic impact in the EU (and elsewhere) is huge.
Finally giving up on data acquisition is a huge mistake when the recent development of non-invasive brain imaging techniques just unlocks the access to the child brain revealing unexpected results (e.g frontal activation in infants, no specific activation to faces in the fusiform gyrus until late childhood), pointing to our ignorance of even the simplest principles which might explain how an assembly of cells can give rise to thoughts.

July 9, 2014, 7:57 a.m.
Ghislaine Dehaene-Lambertz. INSERM. France

Update: via Prerana Shresthra, there are a couple of other good explanations of the problems some have with the Human Brain Project on Quora:

One of the big dreams of my life are to eventually simulate brains, so a priori I love the idea. Here I will just list some of my objections. I do not speak for anyone else and do not claim full knowledge about the HBP. But I have been following the publicly visible parts for a while. I believe that it is premature because

1) We lack the knowledge needed to build meaningful bottom up models and I will just give a few examples:
a) We know something about a small number of synapses but not how they interact
b) We know something about a small number of cell types, but not about the full multimodal statistics (genes, connectivity, physiology)
c) We know something about a small number of cell-cell connections, but a tiny fraction of all the existing ones
d) We know a few things about how a neuron’s dynamics relates to its inputs, but only for a tiny number of cells and conditions.
e) We know a few aspects of a few neurons that change over time, but again for a tiny number of cells and conditions.
The degree of the lack of knowledge is mindboggling. There are far more neurons in the brain than people on the planet. Any planned bottom-up simulations of the human brain are akin to simulating the entire human society on the planet based on say a random 100,000 word documents sampled from the internet. For simulations, the output is only as good as the knowledge about the system that you put in. Hence, large scale simulations are bound to lead to poor results. In my judgment, the data will not become available in sufficient amounts before the termination of the HBP.

…Understanding the brain is different than going to the moon. We knew where the moon was. We do not know how a simulation of the brain should look like. Any simulation techniques developed at the moment may end up being useless for the kinds of models of the brain that we will eventually need.

(and there’s more!) Go visit Quora to see the rest.

Update the second: Neuroskeptic has a good interview with Zach Mainen, the man responsible for organizing the Neurofuture petition.

Monday open thread: Rebellion against the Human Brain Project (updated x3, now with more gossip)

FENS, the major European neuroscience meeting, is currently under way. That¬†makes today a good time to announce a European rebellion against the Human Brain Project¬†(HBP). HBP is something like a European-equivalent of the BRAIN Initiative that has people in such a fuss over here in the US except it’s been underway for a year and has a more narrow focus.

It has long been my impression that the¬†HBP has been something of a “give Henry Markram money” project, and the twitter feed kind of reinforces that view. Markram, for those not aware, runs the lab that is working on the Blue Brain Project, an attempt to simulate the human brain – or at least, one cortical column’s worth of it (pieces of the brain not being simulated, to my knowledge: any sensory input, glia, blood flow, the extracellular matrix, and more). The core of the HBP is in a similar vein: informatics, computation, that sort of thing. I’m about as sympathetic as you could get to diverting funding to computation and theory, but I’ve been pretty flabbergasted by some of the overselling that they’ve done to get it.

Look at the response the proposal got a couple years ago in a Nature commentary:

As the response at the meeting made clear, however, there is deep unease about Markram’s vision. Many neuroscientists think it is ill-conceived, not least because Markram’s idiosyncratic approach to brain simulation strikes them as grotesquely cumbersome and over-detailed. They see the HBP as overhyped, thanks to breathless media reports about what it will accomplish. And they’re not at all sure that they can trust Markram to run a project that is truly open to other ideas.

¬†However, the HBP has been controversial and divisive within the European neuroscience community from the beginning. Many laboratories refused to join the project when it was first submitted because of its focus on an overly narrow approach, leading to a significant risk that it would fail to meet its goals. Further attrition of members during the ramp-up phase added to this narrowing.In June, a Framework Proposal Agreement (FPA) for the second round of funding for the HBP was submitted. This, unfortunately, reflected an even further narrowing of goals and funding allocation, including the removal of an entire neuroscience subproject and the consequent deletion of 18 additional laboratories, as well as further withdrawals and the resignation of one member of the internal scientific advisory board…In this context, we wish to express the view that the HBP is not on course and that the European Commission must take a very careful look at both the science and the management of the HBP before it is renewed. We strongly question whether the goals and implementation of the HBP are adequate to form the nucleus of the collaborative effort in Europe that will further our understanding of the brain.

The letter is fronted by Zach Mainen and seems to be signed by the entirety of the European neuroscience community not named Henry Markram (I kid, I kid).

Anyone know which subproject was deleted, and which laboratories were affected?

Anyone have a defense of the HBP?

Given the BRAIN Initiative, is there actually a ‘moon shot’ that could be achieved in neuroscience?

Frankly, if I wanted to try simulating the complete nervous system of an animal, I’d start with something smaller and more manageable.
Update: some other coverage. Hilarious quote:
Richard Frackowiak, director of clinical neuroscience at the University Hospital of Lausanne, and co-leader of a strand of the Human Brain Project focusing on “future medicine”, said that many of the complaints were “irrational sniping” from scientists who were ill-informed, or wanted the funds to pursue their own research agendas.
Update 2:¬†I asked one of the signatories about what had spurred the letter, especially given that some of them had been big supporters of the project in the past. The signatory¬†said, “Some were optimistic that any big neuroscience project was better than none; recent changes that make that view less tenable”…I think they were referring to:
Central to the latest controversy are recent changes made by Henry Markram, head of the Human Brain Project at the Swiss Federal Institute for Technology in Lausanne. The changes sidelined cognitive scientists who study high-level brain functions, such as thought and behaviour. Without them, the brain simulation will be built from the bottom up, drawing on more fundamental science, such as studies of individual neurons.
Update 3: Science Magazine has some good quotes about this whole kerfuffle:
‚ÄúThe notion that we know enough about the brain to know what we should simulate is crazy, quite frankly,‚ÄĚ Dayan says…
The nixed subproject, called¬†Cognitive Architectures¬†and headed by French neuroscientist Stanislas Dehaene, represented all the neuroscience in Europe that isn’t working on a molecular or synaptic level, says Zachary Mainen of the Champalimaud Centre for the Unknown in Lisbon, one of the authors of the letter. HBP “is not a democracy, it‚Äôs Henry‚Äôs game, and you can either be convinced by his arguments or else you can leave,‚ÄĚ Mainen says.
BAM! I love strong quotes. Indeed, talking to a few people who know more about this than I do, it sounds a lot like this is the after-effect of a power play by Markram. It seems as if by jettisoning the cognitive science portion of HBP, this left him in control of a more computationally-focused project (that he probably wanted the most). Someone suggested that he may lose some of the funds, but he would retain full control of most of the rest.
Markram has a strong personality and people seem worried that he is wresting control of the project to focus on¬†his¬†particular research interests. Obviously, this isn’t sitting well with a lot of the European community…

Your mind is not YOUR mind

Sorry about the light posting these past couple of weeks, I went through an ultra busy phase. ¬†I’ll start reviewing some social neuroscience research again tomorrow, but I thought I’d try a quick post about how intimately linked the mind and environment are.

Let’s start by asking ourselves what we mean by our mind. ¬†Generally, we can reduce this to our brain, right? ¬†Synapses fire, neurons compute and we think and interact with the world. ¬†Most neurons receive input via electrical or chemical interactions with other neurons. ¬†But not all of them do! ¬†Clearly, I’ve been stressing the role of neurohormones and other peptides and how they relate to the brain; but the brain interfaces with and receives input from the whole body, so in a way the brain and the body are only somewhat distinct. ¬†The body is a kind of fuzzy extension of the brain. ¬†Our brain also receives direct input from the environment; the light hitting our eyes, the sound hitting our ears, etc. ¬†One has to realize that our mind cannot exist without the input to the brain from the outside world. ¬†This is one reason why projects like the Blue Brain are somewhat silly.

This philosophy is, I think, called the Extended Mind. ¬†And this isn’t some wacky theoretical idea that will never affect you; we’re actually going through a technological phase that will radically reshape our extended mind. ¬†CNet tries to give a good example of that:

Google, in essence, becomes a part of you. Imagine Google playing a customized audio commentary based on what you look at while on a tourist trip and then sharing photo highlights with your friends as you go. Or Google taking over your car when it concludes based on your steering response time and blink rate that you’re no longer fit to drive. Or your Google glasses automatically beaming audio and video to the police when you say a phrase that indicates you’re being mugged.

The article ends by being more than a bit silly. ¬†But we need to focus on this part here. ¬†We’ve put our memories on paper so long that we forget that we have an external memory (external hard drive, if you will). ¬†These memories aren’t really well integrated into our minds – we have to go out and¬†find and¬†read the book or notes for them to be useful. Now, Google Goggles and such promise to fully integrate external manifestations of our mind, blurring the difference between brain and external world.

These external manifestations currently take the form of¬†factual¬†memories and actions. ¬†But our remembrances are also a creation of our interaction with the world. ¬†The Independent has a good article on how memories are not fully ‘our own’:

One 54-year-old identical twin, on hearing the other claim ownership of the memory of a roller-skating injury from when they were eight or nine, responded indignantly. “Well, that actually happened to me if you don’t mind‚Ķ I think you’ll find if you think really hard it was me.” The other, yielding ground, eventually responded: “Oh well, I guess we get confused; it happened so long ago.”

Now, from the previous discussion, it should be clear that memories being ‘our own’ doesn’t truly make sense because our whole mind is extended outside of our brain. ¬†Still, the idea that our memories are almost totally unreliable, that they can be fabricated and based on what we hear other people say? ¬†That we can share memories? ¬†That sounds crazy and a bit disturbing (to me at least!). ¬†But it’s true: our minds are not our own. ¬†They are a combination of our brain, our body, and our physical and social environment. ¬†There is truth to the saying that no man is an island.