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Scientists threaten to boycott Human Brain Project

Scientists threaten to boycott Human Brain Project | healthcare technology |

Researchers say European commission-funded initiative to simulate human brain suffers from 'substantial failures'

The world's largest project to unravel the mysteries of the human brain has been thrown into crisis with more than 100 leading researchers threatening to boycott the effort amid accusations of mismanagement and fears that it is doomed to failure.

More than 80 European and international research institutions signed up to the 10-year project.

But it proved controversial from the start. Many researchers refused to join on the grounds that it was far too premature to attempt a simulation of the entire human brain in a computer. Now some claim the project is taking the wrong approach, wastes money and risks a backlash against neuroscience if it fails to deliver.

In an open letter to the European commission on Monday, more than 130 leaders of scientific groups around the world, including researchers at Oxford, Cambridge, Edinburgh and UCL, warn they will boycott the project and urge others to join them unless major changes are made to the initiative.

The researchers urge EC officials who are now reviewing the plans to take a hard look at the science and management before deciding on whether to renew its funding. They believe the review, which is due to conclude at the end of the summer, will find "substantial failures" in the project's governance, flexibility and openness.

Central to the latest controversy are recent changes which 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. The brain, the most complex object known, has some 86bn neurons and 100tn connections.

Sir Colin Blakemore, professor of neuroscience at the University of London, who is not one of the signatories to the letter, said: "It's important that the review should be thorough and, if necessary, critical. But it would be unfortunate if this high-profile project were to be abandoned. There's enough flexibility in the plans to allow the project to be refocused and re-energised.

"The most important thing is that the goals should be realistic. If they promise the politicians cures for dementia or miraculous breakthroughs in artificial intelligence, but don't really deliver them, it might have a negative impact on the whole funding of neuroscience in the future – and that would be a disaster.".

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DNA Sequencing Helped A Doctor Save This Teen's Life

DNA Sequencing Helped A Doctor Save This Teen's Life | healthcare technology |

Many recent headlines regarding DNA and genetic science have been complex and hard for the average person to relate to. When the technology saves a young person's life, such as what happened recently at the University of California, San Francisco, the science takes on human qualities, and as a public, we can truly grasp just how important and revolutionary this combination of biology and technology really is.

Dr. James Gern, a professor of pediatrics and medicine at the University of Wisconsin School of Medicine and Public Health in Madison, contacted Joseph DeRisi for help after his patient, a 14-year-old boy, was hospitalized with encephalitis. The prognosis was so severe that the young  man had been hospitalized for six weeks and put into a medically induced coma, according to a press release.

None of the tests and procedures run so far had managed to point out the cause of the boy’s illness. Gern contacted DeRisi, chair of biochemistry and biophysics at UCSF, due to his expertise in new genomic techniques. These techniques involved identifying pathogens that were previously unknown, such as that which caused the young man's illness. According to DeRisi, with this new technology, essentially any pathogen can now be detected with a single test. Once the cause was found, correct treatment could be administered.

The case study can be found published online in the New England Journal of Medicine.

Using SURPI, a tool used in “next generation-sequencing,” a team of researchers quickly and efficiently found the cause of the young man’s illness.

With the help of the technology, the team compared samples of the boy’s DNA to the GenBank databases maintained by the National Center for Biotechnology Information with awe-inspiring speed, doing in 96 minutes what before took at least a day.

Researchers determined that 475 distinct DNA sequences among the three million DNA sequences obtained in the patient’s cereospinal fluid came from a type of bacteria called Leptospira.

The team was even able to pinpoint the exact strain of Leptospira that they boy had been contaminated with: one native to the Caribbean and warmer climates.

Based on these findings, researchers decided to treat the boy using penicillin without having the diagnosis validated with a clinically approved test.

The antibiotics treatment was successful in ridding the boy’s body of infection, and he was discharged and sent home shortly afterward.

Validation by a clinically approved test could have taken upward of five months to confirm, and by this time the boy may not have survived. 

more at

The case study can be read at

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