Decoding the Brain Goes Global With the International Brain Initiative
Few times in history has mankind ever united to solve a single goal. Even the ultimate moonshot in history - putting a man on the moon - was driven by international competition rather than unification.
So it’s perhaps fitting that mankind is now uniting to understand the organ that fundamentally makes us human: our brain. First envisioned in 2016 through a series of discussions on the “grand challenges” in neuroscience at Johns Hopkins University, the International Brain Initiative (IBI) “came out” this week in a forward-looking paper in Neuron.
Rather than each country formulating their own brain projects independently, the project argues, it’s high time for the world to come together and share their findings, resources, and expertise across borders. By uniting efforts, the IBI can help shape the future of neuroscience research at a global scale - for promoting brain and mental health, for stimulating international collaboration, for ethical neuroscience practices, and for crafting future generations of scientists.
“It takes a world to understand the brain,” said Caroline Montojo of the Kavli Foundation, which offered support to the project. “When we have the best brains and the best minds working together, sharing information and research that could benefit us all.”
The initiative, at the time of writing, includes Japan’s Brain/Minds, Australian Brain Alliance, the EU’s Human Brain Project (HBP), Canadian Brain Research Strategy, the US’ BRAIN Initiative (BRAINI), the Korea Brain Initiative, and the China Brain Project.
The IBI comes at a time when global research divisions are prominent. Established national projects, such as the BRAINI and the HBP, have notably different goals at the operational level. The BRAINI, for example, prominently champions developing new tools to study brain functions, whereas the HBP’s ultimate goal is to recreate the function of a human brain inside machines.
Even within single countries, divisions in practical paths forward have been, mildly put, chaotic. China’s Brain Project, announced officially in 2016 and kicked off two years later, was plagued by different opinions on focus: should it be on solving brain disorders, or understanding the neurobiology behind cognition, or focused on engineering problems that more intimately link human brains with AI?
Then there’s the underlying political milieu, where certain countries are cracking down on international researchers for fear that they may be stealing or selling trade secrets. To all these divisions, the IBI took a stance and said no - it’s time to work together.
“The biggest challenge that we’re facing is to really understand how the brain works, the mystery of the brain, to crack the code,” said Dr. Yves De Koninck of the Canadian Brain Research Strategy. “If we’re going to make the really big leap changes in the level of understanding of how the brain works in health and disease, we need to have global collaboration, I mean that’s just absolutely vital,” added Dr. Linda Lanyon at the IBI Data Standards and Sharing Working Group.
The IBI is best viewed as a grassroots organization driven by the views of neuroscientists across the globe, rather than a bureaucratic entity following the views of a select few. In a way, the IBI organizes itself similar to the United Nations, with a five-year strategic plan, multiple working groups, and a governance structure.
It’s clear that the IBI benefited from a global recognition, and subsequent establishment, of large-scale neuroscience projects to understand the brain. Yet any single initiative is like the blind men and the elephant parable - despite millions (or even billions) of dollars in investment, due to the brain’s complexity each can only probe a small part of human brain function.
However, even with different end goals, findings from each project will likely benefit each other - if properly shared in an easily-interpretable manner (the Kavli Foundation also backs a standardized format for neuroscience data called Neurodata Without Borders 2.0). Tools developed from BRAINI, for example, will likely benefit brain mapping initiatives around the world, and neural simulations can inspire insights into brain disorders or better paths towards brain-machine interfaces. “A synergistic international effort could provide greater overall impact and better utilization of precious research funding,” the authors argued.
Working across political aisles is already tough; now imagine sharing terabytes of data across international borders to someone you hardly know. The IBI aims to provide a platform that explores new models of collaboration among scientists so that, to put it bluntly, no one gets screwed out of their recognition. In addition, the IBI also works outside the ivory tower with private and public funding bodies, industry partners, and government-related agencies on the “social, economic, and ethical impacts of neuroscientific discoveries and their translation.”
That’s huge. The initiative comes at a time when technological advances are increasingly making it easier to skirt ethical considerations and move forward with iffy research projects. Making human-animal hybrid embryos to understand the roots of intelligence? Conducting brain stimulation trials that may slowly change a person’s personality? Linking multiple human minds into computers by probing their brain waves? These futuristic projects abound and will only grow in number as our ability to crack the neural code improves.
The IBI argues that neuroscientists across the globe need to take a moral stance - similar to emerging projects for ethical AI - to guide research in an ethical manner. With several countries infamous for pushing moral boundaries also joining the alliance, the IBI may put an international leash on less-savory projects going forward, while respecting diverse cultural frameworks.
IBI group members stressed that the initiative isn’t meant to be bureaucratic. Rather, it’s adaptive and “allows the organization to be shaped by the scientific community over time,” the authors said. Integrating multiple goals of various brain projects together, the IBI serves as meta-middleman to promote coordination, share resources, and help unite different ideas on the future of neuroscience.
“This IBI is quite unique in trying to go from the very microscopic scale of the synapses that encode information within the brain, all the way up to how the information manifests itself in human cognition and animal behavior,” said Dr. Linda Richards of the Australian Brain Alliance.
Despite being years in the making, the initiative is just crossing the starting line. “With a solid infrastructure now in place and enthusiasm amassed, an immediate focus for the IBI is to establish and develop the core working groups that are making progress toward short-term deliverables,” the authors said. The execution of a five-year plan to propel neuroscience research forward will need considerable debates on specific aims, approaches, and technologies, but will also add to a foundation for collaboration and priority-setting across the world, they added.
“This is a new era of neuroscience, where neuroscientists will have access to large datasets and new ways of sharing in a collaborative manner internationally,” said Richards.
Is IBI’s vision naïve? Maybe. The most impactful technological advancements of our age - flight, nuclear weapons, conquering space, the Internet - have all stemmed from the minds of a relatively small group of people working under duress from other people. But when it comes to truly understanding the brain, the basis of who we are and what we believe, the root cause of divided opinions and worldviews, the organ that could one day be directly manipulated and fundamentally alter humanity as a species - fighting for a global consortium is the least we can do.
Shelly Xuelai Fan is a neuroscientist-turned-science writer. She completed her PhD in neuroscience at the University of British Columbia, where she developed novel treatments for neurodegeneration.