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Billion-Euro Mutant Mice

The Human Brain Project. Sounds like something from a dystopian future novel, right? Well you wouldn’t be far wrong, except it isn’t fiction and it is taking place right now.

The eleven-year scientific research project (2013-2024), currently four years underway in Geneva, Switzerland, ‘aims to build a collaborative ICT-based scientific research infrastructure to allow researchers across the globe to advance knowledge in the fields of neuroscience, computing, and brain-related medicine.’ In other words, its overly ambitious goal is to apply the latest knowledge of the human brain (and its diseases) to a computerized simulation…of the brain. Mind-blowing stuff when you start to dig deep and discover more about this, might I add, largely EU-funded (€1.2bn to be precise) project.

Yet early in, the HBP found itself at the end of many-a-pointed finger. Criticism came from more than 100 leading researchers who threatened to boycott the effort amid accusations of mismanagement and fears that it was doomed to fail, at a great cost. Yes, it does sound extremely costly, and dare I say, nonsense? Perhaps the human brain isn’t actually anything like a supercomputer and it is indeed, an organic entity with around 86 billion nerve cells and 100 trillion synapses? Sure, mathematical patterns can be replicated, but can a robot ever mimic our grasp of language, cognitive intelligence, emotion and conscience? And if it can, is that good?

There is lots to be read about the attempts, goals, failures, funding and the people behind the HBP, widely available online. Yet what isn’t widely discussed is how exactly their research, or what the general public merely know to be ‘basic research’, is conducted. A significant amount of resources behind the HBP are dedicated to the study of the mouse brain.

Is it wise to extract data from a project costing billions, based upon the brain of a mouse weighing half a gram?

Surely it doesn’t take a neuroscientist to say ‘hmm, the mouse brain and the human brain are quite different, starting at a basic gene level and 70 million years of evolution’? Apparently that isn’t an issue. The now deposed executive lead neuroscientist behind the HBP, Henry Markram, became the first scientist to ‘patch’ two living neurons simultaneously- to apply microscopic pipettes to freshly harvested rat neurons to measure the electrical signals fired between them.

Today Markram’s extensive research means that the HBP team mutate mice whose brains are half human. At risk of sounding like a philistine, for me this conjures images of mental-looking professors with spirals of ear-hair and demented expressions injecting defenseless tiny rodents. In the head.

The altered mice still have mouse neurons, the ‘thinking’ cells, but practically all the glial cells in their brains, the ones that support the neurons, are human. “It’s still a mouse brain, not a human brain,” claimed Steve Goldman of the University of Rochester Medical Center in New York. “But all the non-neuronal cells are human.” As a result, the animals are smarter than their siblings (they had an increased ability to remember a sound associated with a mild electric shock) and supposedly we advance our understanding of human brain diseases by studying them in whole mouse brains rather than in dishes.

To put it quite frankly, the HBP team extracted immature glial cells from donated human fetuses and then injected them into mouse pups where they developed into astrocytes, a star-shaped type of glial cell.

There is no denying that findings have been fascinating and unexpected, but is it helpful and is it necessary for such vast sums of money to be spent on ‘interesting’ research while human patients in Europe suffer as a result of budget shortages? Even if is helpful, does it make it OK to tamper with a mammal’s brain and torment it for a reaction? At one point there was discussion of transferring human brain cells into monkeys. This was over-ruled because of ‘ethical’ issues.

So, yes, to confirm, to mutate a baby monkey (with a central nervous system) is wrong. Mutating a baby mouse (with a central nervous system) is OK because obviously they don’t resemble humans so they don’t feel pain. Wrong. Mice have maternal instincts, form relationships and have even been proven to show empathy towards each other. Probably more empathy than any of the acclaimed geniuses working on the Human Brain Project.

News by Melanie Hancock.