Technology development at the heart of ‘big neuroscience’

Published in Protocols & Methods

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European and US initiatives aiming to advance our understanding of brain function depend on new technologies.  

Last January the European Commission awarded one of its flagship grants worth 1 billion Euros ($1.3 billion) to the Human Brain Project, an international initiative that seeks to integrate everything we know about the brain into databases and computer models. The Human Brain Project builds on the work of the Blue Brain Project led by Henry Markram of the École Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne and seeks to simulate the workings of the human brain.  

The NIH is also likely to support a  big collaborative effort to improve our understanding of the brain through the Brain Activity Map, a  project that aims to develop technologies to monitor and modulate the activity of whole brain circuits at cellular level.

As we discuss in our recent editorial, technological development is a fundamental pillar of both of these projects. The Human Brain Project will require significant advancements in algorithms and computing technology, and will benefit from improvements in the type of data that is used to create the models. The Brain Activity Map faces challenges due to the difficulty of recording the activity of neurons distributed across large brain areas simultaneously and at the cellular level. As its proponents have outlined, the project will require large efforts in new technological development in the areas of functional brain imaging and optogenetics. It also has to set realistic goals and focus much of its initial effors in model organisms.

Understanding brain function and its pathologies is undoubtedly a challenge worth taking—the steps that will take us in the right direction hinge on our capacity to work across scientific disciplines and stimulate major technological advances.

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