2/2014

Brain research leaps forward

Marja-Leena Linne

 

The Computational Neuroscience Laboratory headed by Marja-Leena Linne at TUT was selected from among more than 350 applicants to join the HBP. About 20 new members were invited to join the consortium as a result of a competitive call for additional partners arranged last winter. “The HBP is exceedingly well managed and has taught me a great deal about the practicalities of EU projects,” she says.

 

The Computational Neuroscience Laboratory at TUT is participating in a massive undertaking to better understand the complex brain mechanisms underlying memory formation and learning. The project represents a groundbreaking effort even on a global scale.

The Human Brain Project (HBP) is a multidisciplinary research project that aims to improve our understanding of the structure and functions of the brain and unravel the underlying biology of neurological and psychiatric disorders. The project has the potential to push brain research forward and improve the quality of life for millions of people.

The promising results achieved during the first year of the HBP were showcased at the HBP Summit in Germany this autumn. The event brought together hundreds of HBP subproject leaders and scientists, among them Adjunct Professor Marja-Leena Linne of Tampere University of Technology. Linne says that the project partners have developed valuable new tools for neuroscientists and technology developers.

”These tools are called platforms. They will lay the foundations for a radically new approach to neuroscience and have a substantial impact on research and education. I’ll also be using them to drive brain research and education forward at TUT and in Finland.”

“The Brain Simulation Platform is paving the way for more effective and sophisticated simulations of the functions performed by one area of the cerebral cortex. The Medical Informatics Platform provides access to enormous volumes of clinical data. All the six platforms will be launched in March 2016.”

Human Brain Project (HBP)

The Human Brain Project (HBP) is a huge scientific undertaking that seeks to develop new computational tools for neuroscientists and improve our understanding of brain functions and the mechanisms underlying neurological and psychiatric disorders.

The results hope to accelerate progress towards effective diagnosis and treatment of brain diseases and the development of novel robotics and information technology that mimic the human brain.

The project will make it easier for scientists to access and analyse vast amounts of diverse brain data.

The partners involved in the HBP are developing, among others, information systems and software for the collection and analysis of brain data, theoretical frameworks for computational models, and energy-efficient, optimized platforms for addressing computational challenges.

Linne’s Computational Neuroscience Laboratory has joined forces with groups headed by Professor Liam McDaid from Ireland and Associate Professor Ausra Saudargiene from Lithuania, respectively. The leader of their subproject is one of the world's foremost theoretical neuroscientists, Professor Alain Destexhe from France.

The HBP is led by Professor of Neuroscience Henry Markram of the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology and co-directed by Professors Karlheinz Meier and Richard Frackowiak. Slated to receive one billion dollars from the EU, the HBP is funded under the Future and Emerging Technologies (FET) Flagship Programme, which encourages visionary research with the potential to deliver breakthroughs and major benefits for European society and industry.

 

Computational models of learning and neuroplasticity

The Computational Neuroscience Laboratory headed by Linne studies the interactions between neurons and other cells in neural networks. The ultimate goal is to develop increasingly accurate but computationally less demanding models of learning processes and neuroplasticity.

“We’re especially interested in finding out how the different cells in the brain communicate and interact with each other and effectively compensate for abnormalities in signal transmission. We’ve now moved on from the specification phase to modelling the mechanisms.”

The HBP is a large-scale project divided into 13 subprojects. Linne’s group is involved in the subproject titled Theoretical Neuroscience.

”The main challenge lies in describing the neural mechanisms of information processing at the level of genes, molecules and cells and scaling them up to the level of systems. Theoretical tools and modelling techniques are needed to achieve a comprehensive systems-level understanding of the brain, as the scope of experimental research is inevitably limited to only parts of the brain at a time,” Linne says.

Important milestones ahead

The boundaries between the HBP subprojects cross, and, for example, the four subprojects called the Theoretical Neuroscience, the Brain Simulation Platform, Strategic Mouse Brain Data and Strategic Human Brain Data are all conducted in close collaboration. The resulting simulation models are validated using the informatics tools developed by researchers involved in the Neuroinformatics Platform subproject.

“This is an unprecedented approach to scientific collaboration and allows us to leverage each other’s strengths and benefit from shared expertise. The members of the consortium maintain frequent contact through conference calls and by attending workshops,” Linne describes.

The Human Brain Project is part of the FET Flagship Programme, which is a new initiative launched by the European Commission as part of its Future and Emerging Technologies (FET) initiative. The Flagship Programme has ambitious goals and brings together national and regional funding agencies, industry and partners from outside the EU. The HBP is set to receive one billion euros of funding from the EU.

Both the Flagship Programme and the Human Brain Project have attracted criticism, but Marja-Leena Linne’s first-hand experiences have strengthened her confidence in both.

“Critics have voiced concerns about the feasibility of the HBP and claimed that the goals cannot be met in the next ten years. I believe that significant milestones will be achieved. In particular, the project will vastly improve the resources and tools available to neuroscientists. We’ll be better equipped to tackle the challenges facing neuroscience!”

EITN provides support and expertise

Marja-Leena Linne has been actively involved in setting up the European Institute for Theoretical Neuroscience (EITN), which was established with funding from the HBP. Led by Professor Alain Destexhe, EITN fosters collaboration between European researchers in the broad field of neuroscience.

“Six months in, my professional network has expanded considerably. EITN has made it easier to stay up to date on relevant research and share information.”

Linne is hoping to secure additional funding to promote the effective transfer of new knowledge to the scientific community in Finland.

“Being part of EITN has helped me increase the visibility of TUT, the Computational Neuroscience Laboratory and my research. I’ve received several invitations to speak at EITN’s workshops, and the members of my research group will also be visiting the institute.”

Human Brain Project: https://www.humanbrainproject.eu/

The European Institute for Theoretical Neuroscience (EITN): http://www.eitn.eu/

Text: Marjut Kemiläinen
Photo: Petri Laitinen

 
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