Sunday, 14 July 2013

Brain Projects springing up across the world: The B.R.A.I.N. Initiative, The Human Brain Project (HBP) and Israel Brain Technologies

R&D budgets across the world have surprisingly struggled to take serious note of neuro-science’s explosive growth, and neurotech briefly remained under-funded, awaiting a policy push. Until recently, that is. Today, at least five international neuroscience initiatives are already going full-steam ahead towards a brighter neurotech future, all of which are less than three years old. The initiatives are in addition to ambitious brain projects and specialized neuroscience foundations and non-profit organizations around the world, some of which were established precisely to relieve R&D budget bottlenecks.

Israel’s President Shimon Peres was one of the first global leaders to see the immense potential of neurotechnology and to lay foundations for Israel’s now burgeoning Israel Brain Technologies initiative, officially founded in 2011. Many figures and organizations quickly followed suit, in what has now become a global gold rush to fill the emerging power vacuum on the throne of world brain leaders. Table 1 summarizes active neuroscience initiatives and active brain foundations around the world.

Initiative/ Foundation

Brain Research Through Advancing Innovative Technologies (B.R.A.I.N)
$100 million for first year; commitment for 10 years—subsequent budget to be drawn at later stages
Create an elaborate brain map and invest in novel brain mapping technologies
Fattah Brain Initiative (Now part of B.R.A.I.N)
Significantly increase federal funding of neuroscience, which the initiative accomplished  with the B.R.A.I.N. project
Human Brain Project
€1.19 billion over 10 years
Develop world’s most elaborate ICT (Information and Communication Technology) Infrastructure in order to provide powerful research tools for neuroscience and to establish and accelerate a global collaboration in brain research
Israel Brain Technologies (IBT)
N/A; $1 million prize for international innovative neurotechnology
Make Israel a leading neurotech hub of the world; fund most innovative global neuro-technologies
National Neurotechnology Initiative Act (NNTI)
$200 million
Open up innovation bottlenecks by coordinating across federal agencies on all neuro-developments, and establishing multi-agency cooperation in neuroscience
Brain Canada Multi-Investigator Research Initiative (MIRI)
CA$ 1.5 million per project, over three years
Support up to five multidisciplinary teams in the sphere of neuroscience research over three years

Palestinian Neuroscience Initiative
Approx. $300,000
Build infrastructure for neuroscience research in Palestine, Augment research training for a new generation of Palestinian medical students and doctors, in cooperation with elite institutions worldwide
NOK 80 million (US $13.7 million)
Set up state-of-the-art neuroscience equipment across a broad spectrum of molecular and systems neuroscience in Norway

The Dana Foundation*
Approx. $10 million revenue (2011)
Advance brain research and educate the public in a responsible manner about research’s potential
The Brain Canada Foundation (Brain Canada)
CA$100 million
Support Canadian neuroscience, accelerate discoveries to improve the health and quality of life for Canadians who suffer from brain disorders
The Israel Society For Neuroscience#
Collect, share and disseminate information about Israel’s neuro-developments
Brain Foundation Australia#
Fund world-class research Australia-wide into neurological disorders, brain disease and brain injuries
Global Neuroscience Initiative Foundation (GNIF)#



Advance neurological and mental health patient welfare, education, and research; promote free and open-access distribution of brain related information
* Private philanthropic organization
† National charitable organization
# Non-profit charity organization


On April 2, 2013 President Barack Obama unveiled the BRAIN (which coincidentally spells Brain Research through Advancing Innovative Neurotechnologies) initiative, whose final and uttermost objective is to visualize, map, understand and reconstruct the activity of every single neuron in the brain. This knowledge will in the future be applied to the development of new technologies and the treatment of quickly expanding array of neurological disorders.

The initiative was launched with US$ 100 million in the President’s Fiscal Year 2014 Budget, which pales in comparison with the $5.5 billion the NIH spends on neuroscience annually, but significantly outshines the measly $28 million spent on the human genome project in its first year of operation. BRAIN’s near-sighted primary goal will be to sponsor ongoing brain mapping projects, such as the Human Connectome Project, and technologies which will facilitate the projects’ progress. In his BRAIN inauguration speech, the President called on academic institutions, industry, foundations, researchers and philanthropists to help in identifying realistic goals and objectives for the initiative.

In addition to the governmental budget, philanthropic and non-profit organizations have made additional support pledges to the initiative. Foundations which have already announced dedicated commitment to the plan and related projects are: The Allen Institute ($60 million), the Howard Hughes Medical Institute ($30 million annually), the Kavli Foundation ($4 million annually) and Salk Institute for Biological Studies ($28 million).

Considering the fact that a single Human Connectome Project brain scan consumes 22MW of electricity – enough to power a nuclear submarine, BRAIN is likely to be costlier than previous initiatives, and will need to carry a substantial focus on making technological leaps in altogether new directions, which are certainly needed in order to progress with the world’s exuberant plans.
Amongst the plans the BRAIN Initiative advocates are:
  • Solid academic expertise: NIH is due to form an academic leadership group comprising leading scientists to lay out clear scientific objectives, milestones, cost estimates and timetables for the initiative.
  • Strong academia-industry collaboration: federal agencies are strongly encouraged to partner with companies and foundations with complementary interests, paving the way for a smooth transition from neuro-science to neuro-tech. In the past, such collaborations have strongly benefitted government plans, and feature prominently in the BRAIN initiative. All the US-based foundations and initiatives described in table 2 are expected to work closely with the BRAIN initiative.
  • High ethical standards: because neuroscientific, or generally breakthrough, practices are likely to touch on ethically-sensitive bases at some point, the BRAIN initiative is preliminarily addressing potential issues via the President’s order to the Commission for the Study of Bioethical Issues for efforts to be partially diverted towards foreseeable or arising challenges in light of society, the law and ethics.


Since the Human Brain Project’s (HBP) inception in 2013 in its birthplace Lausanne, proponents have likened it to the CERN for the brain, whilst opponents have called it a flamboyant, and a much too feathery, peacock of the sciences. The ambitions of the project are so grand that the necessary supercomputer, befittingly titled “The Brain”, whose job would be to simulate the inner workings of CNS headquarters, would take at least 12 years to build, and each neuron it would simulate would guzzle the power of one laptop. The Brain would devour every neuroscientific finding, brain scan, neuroanatomical image and other imaginable parameters around the world, and process all that information to potentially recreate the millions of neurons and synapses of the mind, and simulate their behavior.

The Human Brain Project competed with other, no less ambitious projects, for the modest sum of €1.19 billion over the next ten years. One worthy challenger project, which also managed to secure substantial EU funds, was 21st century’s miracle material graphene. In general, the main goal of HBP is to slowly but steadily simulate every human brain neuron on the computer, and HBP’s founder and, incidentally, Israel’s Weizmann Institute graduate Henry Markram plans to accomplish this by the 2040s. Work towards this objective is already underway: HBP’s prototype, titled the Blue Brain Project, was launched by Markram in 2005 and by 2008 the first artificial neocortical column of 10,000 rat brain cells was complete.  By 2011 the number of simulated rat neocortical columns stood at 100, and the rat brain project is due to be completed in 2014. By the way, the $20 million supercomputer on which the Blue Brain Project runs costs $1 million a year to cool with Lake Geneva’s water. So much for simulating an organ which runs on the energy of a bedside lamp.

The human brain is orders of magnitude more complex than the rat brain, but perhaps the most restricting factor in human brain simulation is the fact that humans do not grow in labs, and neuroscientists are faced with the immense quest of creating a unique approach to collecting human brain data without having to genetically modify or dissect homo sapiens. This is why HBP will be an omnipotent cohort of 150 (soon to be 1,500) top researchers from 70 institutions in 22 countries, whose reach will branch far and wide into the depths of the scientific and healthcare communities.

The chaotic complexity of HBP is undeniable, but the team has broken the monster mission into manageable and very relevant parts. There is the Neuroinformatics Platform, which aims to create a practical interface for scientists around the world to share and homogenize their data, and the Brain Simulation Platform which will make use and most importantly sense of the collected information, and perform in silico research. Then there are the High Performance Computing Platform, the Medical Informatics Platform, the Neuromorphic Computing Platform and a Neurorobotics Platform. The platforms are all based on previous pioneering work by the partners and, within 30 months, will be open for use by the world’s neuroscience community, growing in magnitude from continuous input generated from research.

And then there is the ethical and public awareness committee, whose important role is to present latest findings to the public so as to minimize the project’s ability to cause unwarranted panic and misunderstanding, to the possibility of which genetically modified produce could testify.


Israel is often referred to as the “Start-up Nation”, but Israel’s president Shimon Peres is seemingly fascinated by a much further frontier than that. From “Start-up Nation” to “Brain Nation” is how the recent non-profit Israel Brain Technologies (IBT) initiative is commonly described. The main goal of the initiative will be to steer Israel’s immense R&D efforts in a more neuro-inspired direction, carrying the ultimate goal of making Israel a leading neurotech hub of the world.

The initiative was conceived under President Peres’s firm belief in the future of neurotechnology, but was put in motion by one of the most successful entrepreneurs in Israel’s history—Dr Rafi Gidron, who was the official founder of IBT and now serves as its chairman. Gidron founded an optical component company Chromatis in 1998, and sold the company to Lucent just 27 months later for $4.7 billion, in what has since become Israel’s largest exit.

Gidron strongly supports the President’s vision to turn Israel into the go-to neuro nation. After all, Peres was able to raise $250 million for nanotechnology research, and there isn’t a doubt that he could do the same for neurotech. IBT is now entering its third year of operation, and already over $10 million was raised for areas which form the focus of the initiative: human-machine interface and neurological therapies.

Currently IBT is generating hype through its $1 million prize offered for yet another brain acronym--the B.R.A.I.N. (Breakthrough Research And Innovation in Neurotechnology) competition, which will see most promising scientists around the globe lock horns over who will be the creator of the most innovative technology around the world in the following spheres:
  • Technology for diagnostics and treatment of brain disease
  • Technology which can improve scientific understanding of the brain
  • Groundbreaking brain-machine interface technology
  • Innovative brain stimulation technology
  • Disruptive neuro-technologies in computation, robotics and communications

Currently a team of leading researchers and neuro-experts around the globe, which include three Nobel laureates Profs Eric Kandel, Daniel Kahneman and Bert Sakmann, are selecting amogst a number of finalists of the Brain Prize, which were announced in May of 2013. The winner will be revealed at IBT’s Global Brain Technology conference in October 2013.

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