Jan Bjaalie on international brain research: “We are now in a critical phase”

Jan G. Bjaalie profile

One of its leading experts is Jan Bjaalie, Professor at the University of Oslo. He talks to us about his work bringing local brain initiatives together, the future of brain research, artificial intelligence and the challenges European neuroscience is facing.

“Catalysing and advancing neuroscience research through international collaboration and knowledge sharing. Uniting diverse ambitions to expand scientific possibility. And disseminating discoveries for the benefit of humanity.” With this intention, brain researchers all over the world joined forces and formed the International Brain Initiative in December 2017.

How would you describe the International Brain Initiative (IBI)? And what is your role in it?

Jan Bjaalie: The IBI is an international organisation created to facilitate communication, exchange of experiences, and to identify common goals and opportunities for synergies among the major brain initiatives formed in the past decade. We also have multiple organisations participating in our stakeholder collective and funders collective.

This year I am chair of the IBI strategy committee and I was co-chair with Shigeo Okabe from Japan from 2018 until 2020.

What main challenges have you come across?

Jan Bjaalie: An example of a challenge is international data governance: collaborations require that data can be used across boundaries of continents and countries. Many of the technical challenges for sharing of data have now been solved, whereas differences in laws, regulations, and related implementations still create problems.

Solving these problems will be important for making progress in areas such as clinical neuroscience. Researchers need to combine data from many sources in order to progress towards preventing and treating diseases of the brain.

What are IBI’s latest important outcomes?

Jan Bjaalie: Some of the outcomes are easy to showcase, others are less visible but nevertheless important. The IBI has for example formed a series of working groups covering areas of common interest. They have produced public reports that serve to inform the initiatives and the broader communities about opportunities and challenges, with recommendations for action. The Neuroethics working group for instance has been active for several years and has delivered analyses and reviews of practices. The initiatives use these in their planning and implementation of research.

Most importantly, IBI provides a unique mechanism for international alignment and further development and uptake of best practises for responsible research and innovation. The IBI is in the process of creating similar capabilities in the field of data standards and sharing, and a new report from our working group on international data governance is serving as a catalyst for change.

At a general level, meetings and other communication channels provided by the IBI have kept the brain initiatives highly updated about each other’s achievements and future plans. This in turn has resulted in direct synergistic actions, such as alignment on how to optimally describe information about research data to make data interpretable across the many disciplines of research.

How is the IBI managed; is it really is a bottom-up structure where the scientists play a leading role?

Jan Bjaalie: The IBI combines top-down and bottom-up approaches. The representatives from the initiatives and the different stakeholders who are active in our strategy committee and collectives do not work in isolation and they are in many cases elected by their projects. The bottom-up component is made up by the participation of a broad group of scientists in the IBI working groups. Both components are essential for making progress.

How do ‘local’ initiatives fit into the IBI framework? For instance, does the EU Human Brain Project feed into IBI or does it have specific goals outside of the global initiative?

Jan Bjaalie: Each initiative has its own strategies, goals, and priorities. IBI is here to augment the initiatives, not to coordinate beyond that or perform any of the research.

In general, is there anything that could be done better on a European level according to you?

Jan Bjaalie: Europe has a large number of smaller projects in the brain research and neuroscience domain, funded nationally or by the EU. These projects deliver valuable results, typically as journal publications, and sometimes with translations to various applications. But many of the results and achievements appear to evaporate in three to four year funding cycles. Where are the data underlying the publications, after the project has ended? Is the research reproducible? Have new methods been documented to a level allowing replicable research?

Few neuroscience laboratories have the combined expertise and capacity to meet all requirements in science. Many research groups also carry a responsibility to train early-stage researchers. In this regard, some of the larger projects, such as the Human Brain Project, have a particular responsibility for developing new approaches and practices to solve the reproducibility and replicability challenges. This is why HBP is delivering the new EBRAINS Research Infrastructure.

We are now in a critical phase in European neuroscience. Will researchers be willing to adapt new solutions for sharing and working with data? Will funders find optimal mechanisms for supporting the individual researchers in making this happen?

The brain and neuroscience in general are topics for which the general public has a great interest, particularly given the increasing incidence of neurodegenerative disease. Does this make it easier to find funding for neuroscience research?

Jan Bjaalie: This broad interest is the background for the large brain initiatives that were formed in the past decade. It will be important to continue to focus on the communication with societies and the general public. IBI contributes to facilitate this communication. Progress towards prevention and treatment of neurodegenerative diseases has been relatively slow. The reason is the enormous complexity of brain function. But this should not stop us from seeing light at the of the tunnel. We may have to think more about communicating one moon landing at a time.

From your point of view, which has been the most revolutionary technique for neuroscience research in the last ten years (optogenetics, imaging technologies, …)?

Jan Bjaalie: I would prefer to not point out a single technique but instead emphasise that neuroscience research uses an extremely broad range of techniques and approaches, since the brain is a multi-dimensional puzzle in time and space. Few fields are as multidisciplinary as neuroscience.

What do you think does the future of neuroscience research look like? What will be the role of Artificial Intelligence?

Jan Bjaalie: AI is increasingly used for feature extraction from large data collections and data analysis in general. Neuroscience has a special relation to AI, since AI researchers have been inspired by neuroscience to build new algorhitms. Neuroscience will continue to rely on input from a number of research techniques and experiments, combined with data management and sharing, model building and simulation aimed at understanding functions of the brain.

The brain exists in an environment and has a body that interacts with the environment. For this reason, the field of neurorobotics, which is also being implemented as simulation software, will play an increasing role for future research aimed at understanding how the brain works.

Useful links:
• Workshop of the Panel for the Future of Science and Technology (STOA) , in collaboration with the International Brain Initiative (IBI) and the Kavli Foundation at the European Parliament: “The International Brain Initiative: Shaping the future of globally coordinated neuroscience”
Edvard Moser: “Neuroscience is evolving at an accelerated speed”
A scientist’s opinion: Interview with Professor Barbara J. Sahakian about brain changes during COVID-19
The Microbiome-gut-brain axis and the rise of psychobiotics

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