The Mountains are in labor and bring forth a mouse – First results of the Blue Brain Project

A few days ago one of the most ambitious science projects of recent years published its first major result – „finally“ some would say. The „Blue Brain Project“, a major part of the „Human Brain Project“, which was confidently and loudly advertised by its initiator Henry Markram a few years ago, has for the first time published a brain simulation (Henry Markram et al. „Reconstruction and simulation of neocortical microcircuitry“, Cell, Volume 163, Issue 2, p456-492, 8 October 2015). Originally coming with the claim to simulate the entire human brain with its nearly 100 billion nerve cells in a computer, Markram’s group now presented the simulation of the activity of a tiny, approximately one third cubic millimeter large piece from the somatosensory cortex of the rat brain, consisting of a total of 31,000 neurons. This corresponds to 0.015% of the approximately 200 million neurons of the rodent, which itself corresponds to only about 0.2% of the number of neurons in the human brain ultimately targeted.

Comparing this first result withthe high ambitions of the project, which led to the funding of one billion euros from the hotly contested pot of EU research funds, it appears, to put it mildly, as rather poor. A somewhat more directcharacterization would be „The Mountains are in labor and bring forth a mouse“. Moreover Markram had to admit: „The reconstruction is a first draft, it is not complete and not a perfect digital replica of the biological tissue“ Among other things, it misses important aspects of the brain structure such as cells, blood vessels or adaptation strategies.

Now ambitious projects, even if they bear the risk of failure, are an important part of science, as Markram himselfnever grows tired of emphasizing. Without the bombastic ambition to further develop the – until then deemed entirely valid – Newtonian gravitational theory,Einstein 100 years ago would have probably not developed today’s most important theory of the universe, his „General Theory of Relativity“. But Einstein only needed pencil and paper. It cost society only the salary of a university professor (and Einstein himself probably his marriage). This is no comparison to one billion euros, which Markram secured for his project. And while the researchers involved claimthat the published result constitutes a significant step towards a fully digital model of the human brain, other neuroscientists consider it as “nothing striking, except that it was a lot of work” which has produced no new insights.

One cannot say that the criticism of this project is new. Since its inception, there is a fierce dispute over Markram’s vision. To rely on a pure computer model is an expensive dead end, so the critics. Since 2005, after all now 10 years ago, there have been no real result in the „Blue Brain Project“, and the project is in danger of failing without any useful results. The money should be better spent in research on real brains. Inter alia the reason for this the critics see in the authoritarian and sometimes megalomaniacal style of Markram himself. Against this background, some scientists accuse him of having misled the EU with irredeemable promises. He had claimed that the project might make it possible to better understand and possibly heal diseases like Parkinson and Alzheimer. Last year the ever louder criticism led to hundreds of researchers signing an open letter in which they complained about focus and structure of the entire project. Independent studies eventually supported these allegations so that reforms of the project were initiated. With the latest publication, the critics see themselves confirmed in their general concerns.

Form a broader perspective, the dispute over the Human Brain Project bringsan important attribute of modern science to light. Since the second half of the 20th century sciencehas been in a process that can best be described as „industrialization“. It increasingly operates in large centralized and tightly organized institutions, a characteristic which is reflected by the term „Big Science“. Scientific research is being more and more driven by mega-projects, extensively funded by governments or large enterprises (such as by NASA or CERN, in the Human Genome Project, or with the ITER nuclear fusion project). So it is only logical that research projects are connected with increasing marketing endeavors. Today’s researchers realizing that their career is more and more dependent on how many third-party funds they solicit can surely relate to that statement, as out of necessity, they spend much of their time writing research proposals to authorities and donors. Thus, the research success of a scientist in this billion-poker for funding ultimately depends on his skill in self-promotion.

But Henry Markram is certainly not the first scientist with a strong or even inflated ego and the corresponding vision into the possibilities of his ideas. The history of science is full of self-increases and egomanias on the part of its protagonists. The great Isaac Newton spent a large part of his intellectual energy onugly disputes and plagiarism fights with his colleagues. And often were those egomaniacal peaks associated with scientific visions which at last enabled science to push the limits of what was considered possible. But meanwhile the scientific establishment has becomeso politicized by the developments described above, that the efficiency of the financial as well as intellectual resources employed in its course sees itself threatened. And science is simply too important to our society to close our eyes on that. Therefore, not only neuroscientific experts should take a close look at the research results now presented by the Blue Brain Project.

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