Q&A: Daniel Pasini, Policy and Programme Officer at the European Commission
Daniel Pasini, PhD, is a Policy and Programme Officer at the European Commission, working in the Horizon 2020 Future and Emerging Technologies (FET) Programme. For more than 20 years he has been closely involved in the development of policy and legal instruments for the construction and operation of European and international research infrastructure, in all fields of science. More recently he joined the FET Programme to follow the FET Flagship Initiatives, in particular the Human Brain Project. This is an extensive project with an estimated budget of €1.2 billion over the next ten years, involving hundreds of scientists and more than 135 European research institutions.
Q: It is an exciting time for neuroscience, and The Human Brain Project is an example of the promise of the field. Can you outline for us the goals and timelines for the project?
The aim of the Human Brain Project (HBP) is to better understand the human brain and its diseases. For this purpose HBP will build six Information Technology (IT) platforms, dedicated to neuroinformatics, brain simulation, high performance computing, medical informatics, neuromorphic computing, and neurorobotics. These IT-based research platforms will be open to the world wide scientific community allowing ground-breaking research into the structure and function of the human brain, the causes, diagnosis and treatment of brain diseases, and the development of new computing technologies such as, for example, low-energy brain-like computing systems.
HBP has formally started on Oct. 1, 2013. However, this follows three years of intensive preparatory work and planning which has produced a 10-year detailed research and technology roadmap. Within 30 months, initial versions of the IT platforms will already be available for use by researchers. The platforms will then receive continuous upgrades to their capabilities over the 10 years of the project. They will be designed to allow reconstruction and simulation of the whole mouse brain by 2020, and of the whole human brain by 2024.
Q: The Human Brain Project has identified six areas of research. Can you talk about how these platforms were chosen?
A key part of the HBP research effort will be dedicated to design, build, and operate its system of six IT platforms; each of them was chosen to address a specific element of the overall program, while working together in an integrated way. The Neuroinformatics Platform will give scientists the ability to organise and search massive volumes of heterogeneous data, knowledge, and tools produced by the international neuroscience community. The Medical Informatics Platform will federate genetics, imaging, and other clinical data currently locked in hospital and research archives. An important goal will be to use the platform to identify biological signatures of disease. The Brain Simulation Platform will provide software tools that will allow researchers to build models of the brain at several levels of detail. The High Performance Computing Platform will provide the interactive supercomputing technology neuroscientists need for the data-intensive simulations of the brain models. The Neuromorphic Computing Platform will create a new class of hardware computing devices inspired by how the brain works, for running accelerated brain simulations, and for potentially many other IT challenges. Finally, the Neurorobotics Platform will offer scientists a software and hardware infrastructure allowing them to connect brain models, implemented through the Brain Simulation Platform, with virtual robotic embodiments and virtual environments.
However, the project has also several other important dimensions. It will generate, in particular, strategically selected data on the structure and function of the mouse and human brain at different levels of biological organization (gene expression, cell numbers and morphology, long range connectivity, cognitive function, etc.), which are needed for the models. A significant research effort will also be dedicated to developing the theoretical frameworks necessary to link brain models and simulations, which describe different levels of brain organization. Finally, HBP will also launch a major Ethics and Society activity with the goal of addressing the project social, ethical, and philosophical dimensions.
Q: The first major congress of the Human Brain Project was held in October. Can you describe the purpose of the meeting and what initial benchmarks were set?
From Oct. 7 to 11, more than 250 scientists from 135 research groups distributed across 81 research organizations in 22 countries, gathered in Lausanne, Switzerland for the first HBP summit. The challenge of coordinating all these research teams within a large integrated initiative cannot be underestimated. This kick-off event provided the occasion for all the partners to meet and exchange, building the team spirit and commitment needed for such a complex and ambitious project to succeed. It also enabled the project leaders to establish the detailed working arrangements between the teams in order to meet the project initial major milestones, namely, the delivery of the first version of the six IT platforms, for internal testing within 18 months, and for use by the community within 30 months. The meeting was inspiring; the scientists were enthusiastic to embark on this new adventure and it was clear that the project has the research talents to address its huge challenges.
Q: The Human Brain Project and other countries’ neuroscience initiatives all have objectives of enabling a deeper understanding of the human brain. How do you see the goals in relation to one another, and how can the Human Brain Project work more closely with other international initiatives?
The Human Brain Project does not intend to compete or duplicate work which has been done or which is being done in other brain related initiatives. It either already collaborates with these initiatives, for example, with the Allen Institute for Brain Science, and with the INCF, the International Neuroinformatics Coordinating Facility, or it will initiate collaboration to ensure optimum mutual benefits and efficiency. HBP is an open facility which will be accessible to the world scientific community. The present consortium already includes research partners from the U.S., Canada, China, Israel, and Japan; collaboration is in the HBP’s genetic makeup! HBP will be a data integration program feeding mainly on data produced by other projects. The more data there is, the better the brain models it develops will be.
The European Commission will be supportive of collaboration between HBP and any other large brain research initiative, like the U.S. BRAIN Initiative, and those being planned in China and Japan. In the case of the BRAIN Initiative there are obvious mutual benefits to collaborate, for example, by combining the new data generated in BRAIN with the HBP facility for data integration, models refinement, and simulation. Brain related diseases are a global problem; international collaboration in this area should take place not only among researchers but should also be a priority for policymakers.