Henry Markram hopes to get one billion euros from the European Union next year. If he does, he will head the biggest brain study project in human history. The goal is to create a complete computer simulation of the human brain, with all of the 100 billion neurons it comprises and the trillions of complex connections between them.
Markram says this virtual brain could be used to significantly advance the treatment of diseases affecting the brain. He intends to reach the ultimate goal by the early 2040s.
Markram was born in South Africa, where he began his research career. He earned his Ph.D. from the Weizmann Institute of Science in Rehovot, where he became an assistant professor. In 2002 he moved to the Ecole Polytechnique Federale de Lausanne in Switzerland. He was appointed to a full professorship and became the founding director of the Brain Mind Institute and the director of the Center for Neuroscience and Technology. In 2005 he founded the Blue Brain Project, which he still heads and is the precursor to the Human Brain Project.
He is not the only one angling for the 1 billion euro Future and Emerging Technologies research support program jackpot. Ranged against Markram are five other groups whose plans are no less grandiose; together, they make up the short list competing to be one of the two - or possibly more - flagship projects to be named in the second half of the year.
Many scientists, however, say that Markram is incapable of meeting his promise to revolutionize brain research. Some are maddened by the idea that so much money could be poured into this one project, at the expense of other projects - that is to say, other scientists.
"The Human Brain Project is irresponsible in terms of public interest," says Prof. Moshe Abeles, who until his recent retirement was the director of the Multidisciplinary Brain Research Center at Bar-Ilan University.
"It's obvious the researchers won't be able to keep their promise. So it's robbing the public purse on one hand and sabotaging the future of science on the other," Abeles says, arguing that once HBP fails, other brain researchers will find it very difficult to persuade funding bodies to give them money for their work.
The website of Nature, the prestigious weekly scientific journal, reported similar criticism from Swiss researchers who see Markram's vision as "ill-conceived" and "overhyped" in the media.
In September Markram's vision took another blow when Prof. Haim Sompolinsky of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, one of the world's leading brain science researchers, announced he was stepping down as senior partner in the project due to differences of opinion with Markram.
"Sompolinsky is one of the best, if not the best, in the area of modeling neural networks," Abeles says. "The fact that he left says something."
Sompolinsky declined to be interviewed for this article.
Markram, for his part, sees in his project the answer to one of the biggest problems that will face humankind in the decades to come. In various forums he has said that one in four people will suffer from one of 560 brain diseases in their lifetimes. A detailed, virtual model of the human brain, he argues, could help scientists develop new drugs while also reducing the need to test these pharmaceutical compounds on animals.
The project, which includes 150 researchers from 70 institutions in 22 countries, has already created a simulation of around one million neurons - roughly the size of a bee's brain. If HPB is awarded the EU funds, the number of researchers could reach 1,500.