Q&A: President of the Federation of European Neuroscience Societies Discusses the Human Brain Project and European Neuroscience Funding
Monica Di Luca is the president of the Federation of European Neuroscience Societies and a professor of pharmacology and biomolecular sciences at the University of Milan.
The European Union has invested significant resources into efforts to increase understanding of the brain and nervous system. What are the key strategic reasons for the investment and what are the primary objectives?
European basic and clinical neuroscientists have played a crucial role in increasing basic understanding of the nervous system and in applying this knowledge to the management of major brain disorders that place an extreme burden on European society.
Beginning in 2007, the European Commission began providing comprehensive support for brain research as part of the Seventh Framework Programme (FP7) for Research and Technological Development — the cooperative funding mechanisms the support and foster research in the European Research Area (ERA). In the seventh iteration, FP7, brain research became a priority receiving targeted resources from 2007-2013: More than 2 billion euro, or a little more than 300 million euro per year, was earmarked for brain-related research. It is clear that at this stage of development in research advances toward real solutions requires sustained support.
Unfortunately, the H2020 program (the 8th iteration ERA funding) doesn’t dedicate money specifically for brain research, however, such research naturally fits within the three “pillars” of H2020 — excellent science, industrial leadership, and ocietal Challenges.
“The Human Brain Project” falls under the aegis of the Future and Emerging Technologies initiative and is an FET-Flagship program. The hope is that through these diverse initiatives the intellectual capital in brain research that was seeded in FP7 can flourish and move the field forward.
How do you see strategic investments such as this one supporting basic science in ways that move the field forward?
Generally speaking, funding of large-scale initiatives such as the Human Brain Project (HBP) should help further lift the field of neuroscience over the coming decade. However, they cannot replace the much-needed broader focus on neuroscience funding.
The Federation of European Neuroscience Societies (FENS) would welcome if in the future H2020 calls for supporting world-class brain research as it was in FP7. Such support would help us tackle real societal challenges and be consistent with the spirit of H2020 by reinforcing innovation and bridging the gap between research and the market.
What are some of the key challenges and opportunities presented by this initiative?
The Human Brain Project aims to achieve a multilevel, integrated understanding of brain structure and function through the development and use of information and communication technologies. These technologies will enable large-scale collaboration and data sharing. In addition, the effort will develop six platforms ranging from neuro-informatics to neuro-simulation and neuro-robotics that will provide tools for neuroscientists to integrate data from different sources, to identify and fill gaps in their knowledge, and to trace causal relationships across multiple levels of brain organization. A major challenge remaining is engaging a wide swath of the neuroscience community in Europe in order to reach the critical mass necessary to fulfill these ambitious aims.
The Human Brain Project cannot replace a much needed broader focus on neuroscience funding through the European Commission’s Joint Programming Initiatives, which are aimed at tackling the health-related, social, technological, and environmental “grand challenges” that face all our citizens. Member states pool their resources making research more efficient and avoiding duplication of work.
The Joint Programming in Neurodegenerative Diseases (JPND) is the largest global research initiative focused on neurodegenerative diseases. JPND increases the coordinated investment between participating EU countries in in order to find causes, develop cures, and identify appropriate ways to care for people with neurodegenerative diseases.
Similarly, the ERA-NET Neuron is a joint effort by ministries and funding organizations across Europe, Israel, and Canada designed to conquer diseases of the brain and nervous system by focusing on neuroscience research and its translation into diagnostic and therapeutic measures.
How will the European Union’s efforts complement the work of other large-scale brain projects being undertaken in countries around the world?
The large-scale programs for brain research in the U.S., Europe, and Asia emphasize that brain diseases impart distinct and difficult societal challenges. Neuroscience research is a team effort propelled forward via formal and informal collaboration, and the magnitude and diversity of these flagship investments highlights the desire to formalize interaction and collaboration. However, it takes time to define areas of complementarity. As scientists, we know only too well that projects — even large-scale ones — can take their own directions and may yield surprising insights. We’ve just begun to harvest data in these projects. And, it is not yet clear whether and how the results of these large-scale projects will end up being truly complementary.
How do you describe to public audiences the importance of the continent’s investment in this area, and why they should support it?
Understanding brain function is a complex process. As scientists we are responsible for developing novel tools and approaches in order to integrate and advance our knowledge. That provides us with opportunities to benefit society by providing a better understanding of the underlying pathogenic mechanisms of brain diseases generating novel therapeutic approaches.
A study from the European Brain Council quantified the "cost and burden" of major brain diseases in Europe at about 800 billion euro per year. The study also estimated that 179 million people of all ages (about a third of the European population) had a brain disease in 2010. Psychiatric and neurologic diseases combined represent a considerable social and economic burden in Europe. The magnitude of these figures cannot be ignored — they are an unquestionable level of emergency.
With our aging population in Europe, the costs will only increase. A primary objective of the Human Brain Project is to curb costs associated with brain disorders and eventually see them decrease as intensified research leads to new treatments and cures.
We hope that these data will convince people of the need to continue to support open, basic research with an eye to increasing collaboration within the European Union and across disciplines and helping our citizens living with a brain disorder. At the same time, research excellence needs to be balanced by a complementary focus on policy priorities, societal challenges, and emerging lead technologies.