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.".