What is the "Brain Initiative", the mysterious journey to the human brain led by the US (Originally in Spanish)

Juan Décima
November 18, 2019

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What is the "Brain Initiative", the mysterious journey to the human brain led by the US (Originally in Spanish)

It was April 2, 2013 when the then president of the United States Barack Obama announced the launch of the BRAIN Initiative in the East Room of the White House. The objective of the project was as ambitious as it was extensive: 15 years, a total budget estimated at 4.5 billion dollars and laboratories distributed around the world, all working towards mapping all the neuronal activity in the brain, and understand how the most mysterious of organs works.

From the possibility of treating Parkinson's and Alzheimer's to the creation of prostheses that allow the brain to be linked directly to the Internet, the potential advances that are estimated after the success of BRAIN are shown as capable of solving some of the most unfathomable problems of medicine, as well as altering the paradigm of what is understood is a human being.

"The BRAIN project is very important because it is focused on creating tools which will allow scientists to make important discoveries," says Rafael Yuste (56), a Spanish neurobiologist currently working at Columbia University in New York, United States. In addition to being one of the most referenced researchers in the field of neuroscience, he is one of the ideologues of the BRAIN Initiative (Investigation of the brain through the advancement of innovative neurotechnologies). 

"The most important pushes for science are given by technologies. Us scientists can believe that we are key, but in reality, we can only see what our tools allow us to see," Yuste explained in an interview with Clarín during his recent visit to Buenos Aires, where he arrived invited by the Argentinian 2030 program of the Headquarters of the Cabinet of Ministers of the national government. "Thanks to this technology, we will understand how the brain works, and how the brain generates the human mind. Perhaps we will not be the ones who will achieve it, but this will allow new generations to perform deep research and studies on neuroscience, ”he added.  It is not necessary to be a scientist to notice that, nowadays, neuroscience is everywhere. From marketing and economics to self-help, there seems to be no discipline that is not dazzled by the "neuro fashion." Nor is it difficult to understand why: it is clear that the key to understanding the central aspects of human behavior is in the brain, the most fascinating and mysterious organ of all. And while there have been advances in recent years that have fueled this kind of passion for science, the issue is that the mechanism of how it works is not yet known for sure. However, for scientists and researchers in the field, the possibility of deciphering the "language" of the brain is a horizon that looks like something that is getting closer and closer. 

Neuroscience is the field of science that studies the nervous system and the interaction between different parts of the brain that give rise to the biological basis of cognition. The "father" of modern neuroscience is the Spanish doctor and researcher Santiago Ramón y Cajal, who won the Medicine Nobel Prize in 1906 with the Italian Camillo Golgi for his work on the structure of the nervous system. Thus neuroscience is relatively new as an autonomous discipline.

“It was a secondary science after physics, chemistry and molecular biology. It has now matured, it is like a child who grew up and is ready to take his place. The BRAIN project was a crucial moment in this consolidation process, ”explains Yuste, who has no doubt that neuroscience will end up being ‘the central science of humanity’ ” . "It could become a discipline that moves at an equal pace with physics and chemistry," he says.

A mystery to solve

The BRAIN initiative is modeled on the basis of the Human Genome project , a global scientific initiative that was launched with the aim of identifying the nearly 25,000 genes that make up human DNA. There are around 500 laboratories around the world doing research in the framework of BRAIN, which is in the fifth year of the 15 that is expected to last. It is estimated that the final budget of the project will be around 6000 million dollars. According to Yuste, the initiative is reaching its "cruising speed", a kind of midpoint of its route. 

The general objectives of the project can be divided into three main groups: to map neuronal activity, to assist in the cure of neurological conditions, and to contribute to the creation of new theoretical and computer models.

The first objective refers to the possibility of recording the activity of the 70 billion neurons that the brain is estimated to have. The neuron is the main cell of the nervous system, and it is responsible for receiving, processing, and transmitting information through chemical and electrical signals. The functioning of the brain is so complex that until now it has only been possible to record the activity of small groups of neurons at the same time.

The second objective is one that has a more direct and tangible application. Understanding the functioning of the brain could lead to the possibility of understanding what depression, mental retardation or neuronal disease are. Potentially, one could assist in the treatment of conditions such as Alzheimer's or Parkinson's. The third objective refers to how unveiling the functioning of the brain could result in improvements on artificial intelligence and computer models.

“These tools can help us unveil how brains do calculations, and it is almost certain that they use algorithms much more sophisticated than those currently used by artificial intelligence and with a much lower energy waste,” explains Yuste, who in turn points out that artificial intelligence works based on how the brain was thought to work in the 70s. That is, a lost model.

“Some of the most powerful computers today need their own power plant to operate. On the other hand, an ant, with a brain of a milligram, makes very complex operations with minimal energy expenditure. In the case of the human brain, energy expenditure is similar to that of a light bulb. Nature discovered something 700 million years ago that can teach us, and it is something that can surely revolutionize the computer industry,” he concludes.

New risks and new rights

If there were no inconveniences, the evolution of the BRAIN initiative would lead to the creation of technologies that would allow us to understand the functioning of the brain, which in turn would open the way for direct intervention and manipulation of brain activity. This would result in benefits for medical treatments of neurological conditions, but it would also open the door for "improvements" to be applied to people who do not have problems of any kind.

“The mind is the brain, the issue is that we don't understand it. But once our tools and technologies allow us to study the brain, we will be able to understand and manipulate people's thoughts. Therefore, we have to be very responsible, especially scientists like me,” says Yuste, who has already made a proposal to try to deal with this issue. Together with 25 other specialists in the field, he postulated a series of ethical rules in the journal ‘Nature’ that could serve to regulate the application of these technologies. They were called “Neuro-rights”, and the goal is for them to be ultimately incorporated into the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

“The idea is for there to be a protection that serves to protect our most essential properties. This is unprecedented in history, because no one could have thought that one day we would be able to intervene with and manipulate mental activity and that the basic characteristics of the human being could be modified, ”he explains to explain the reason for his determination.

A sea of ​​possibilities

The five rights are as follows:

Right to mental privacy: This refers not to the data that one puts in his/her cell phone, but to the information that is in the neurons. Neuronal data generates the mind, and therefore it must be regulated with a legal basis that prohibits commercialising with them. It would have a legal rigor similar to that which regulates human organs. You cannot buy or sell a kidney. But an organ can be donated, and that would be the same case for neural data.

The second and third are interrelated: they are the right to personal identity and free will. It has to do with the brain-computer interfaces that are being developed in the BRAIN project, and that open the door to more efficient ways to connect patients' brains to the network. This would be very useful for paraplegic patients, since they could operate robotic arms and legs through a brain-computer interface.

It could also help the blind. Wireless prostheses are currently being developed that could be implanted under the skull . Connected to a camera, these prostheses could stimulate neuronal activity in a way similar to how vision works. This technological advance, however, will also allow the creation of prostheses that connect the brains of people without any type of disability directly to the Internet.

“The more connected you are, the less human attributes you will have. The more you depend on the network to make decisions, the less free will you will have. The feeling of personal identity, the 'I' and free will, the ability to have agency, are fundamental human rights. The only reason they are not officially consecrated is because it never occurred to anyone that such instances could be artificially modified. Who could have ever thought that a person would not have the capacity to decide on their own? ”, explains Yuste, to base the reason for the inclusion of this right.

The right to equitable access: Like organ transplants, it is sought that these technologies serve to improve the lives of disabled patients. If anyone is allowed to install an electrode on their head with which to connect to the Internet, people could have access to algorithms that increase their cognitive abilities.

“You could have access to a translator of all languages; Instant access to the Wall Street Stock Exchange. The economic and social advantages of being connected directly to the web will be sidereal. This means that there could be cognitively ‘superior’ people, and others that are not. A social division between two types of human beings, between those who have access to this technology, and those who do not, ”says Yuste, who argues that the decision regarding who receives this type of implants should be made based on “medical arguments, and not economic or social.”

The right to the non-discrimination, or to the protection of algorithm biases: the prostheses that will be installed in patients will work with artificial intelligence algorithms created by programmers and software engineers. It is known that algorithms reflect biases, which are the unconscious biases of the people who create them. If those biased devices end up inside the human brain, there is a risk that people will end up with those same biases. When manipulating people's brains, you have to have a limit that marks that what goes in people’s heads is clean of bias.