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Europe's ambitious $1.6 billion human brain simulation project slammed by neuroscientists

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The Human Brain Project (HBP), a $1.6 billion initiative sponsored by the European Commission (EC), is being lambasted by several researchers. Critics are charging that the program suffers from several "substantial failures." Many invitees of the study are refusing to participate, saying technology is not capable of creating an accurate model in any detail.

More than 80 research institutions from around Europe and the rest of the world originally agreed to participate in the experiment. Now, over 100 experts are threatening to leave the quest, amid accusations of mismanagement.

The program aims to create a simulation of the human brain, using supercomputers.

"We know a lot about genetics and a lot about high-level cognitive processes. What we're missing is the link between the two. How do you go from genes to behavior? That's the huge challenge," Sean Hill, co-leader of neuroinformatics research for the Human Brain Project, said.

The 10-year plan, launched last year, aims to gain a better understanding of how the brain and genes affect genetic diseases and disorders. For instance, cystic fibrosis and Down syndrome are each triggered by genetic abnormalities, but researchers are uncertain how those genetic disorders cause physical challenges.

Some experts in high-level functioning of brains have been removed from the project, as managers aim at a constructivist approach. This move was one of the changes in the project driving the group to voice their opposition.

"[D]ue in great part to its narrow focus, it has been highly controversial and divisive within the European neuroscience community and even within the consortium, resulting in on-going losses of members... We believe the HBP is not a well-conceived or implemented project and that it is ill-suited to be the centerpiece of European neuroscience," researchers wrote in an open letter which was signed by 155 scientists to EC leaders.

"Partnering projects" will tie some neuroscience funding to participation in the Human Brain Project. The protesting scientists also spoke out against that policy in their letter.

Computers powerful enough to model the human brain do not exist yet, leading some members to believe the project is doomed to failure. Exascale computers 1,000 times faster than today's supercomputers are being developed by the project. The first of these machines could be completed in around five years, and the HBP expects to purchase its first in the year 2023.

The United States is undertaking its own project, called the Brain Research through Advancing Innovative Neurotechnologies (BRAIN) Initiative. This will create a dynamic model of the brain, capable of demonstrating actions of the organ in action for the first time.

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