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Katrin Amunts shares her fascination for the human brain

Professor Katrin Amunts is Chair of the Science and Infrastructure Board of the Human Brain Project, a Future and Emerging Technologies Flagship of the European Commission aiming to understand the human brain. In this interview, Katrin explains how understanding our brain will help the future of human kind.

This is a picture of Katrin Amunts holding an x-ray of the human brain

Katrin Amunts is holding an x-ray of the human brain.

Katrin, who are you and why did you decide to study the human brain?

My name is Katrin Amunts, and I am professor for Brain Research at the Cécile and Oscar Vogt Institute for Brain Research at the Heinrich-Heine University Duesseldorf, and director of the Institute of Neuroscience and Medicine (INM-1), Research Centre Juelich, Germany. Since 2016 I am Chair of the Science and Infrastructure Board of the Human Brain Project.

The human brain has always fascinated me – it is one of the most complex systems in nature, and we try to identify the principles of its organisation. In addition, it changes throughout the whole lifespan and varies between human subjects. To understand what these variations mean, for example with respect to a certain cognitive function or for a disease process, is a highly interesting topic of research.

How will understanding the human brain change the future of human kind?

Understanding the human brain means to understand its capacities, but also diseases. The burden of disease as estimated by DALYs, an indicator of the burden of disease, is higher for neuropsychiatric diseases as compared to all other ones. Therefore, it is of utmost importance to understand to improve the diagnosis and therapy, and to find prevention methods.

To advance the understanding of the human brain is not possible without utilizing state-of-art big data analytics like deep learning, enabled by high-performance computing. Furthermore, innovative computing and neuronal networks benefit from the advanced understanding of brain organization both pushing the technical limits of supercomputing in terms of memory and performance and leading to new concepts for neuronal networks as well as to neuromorphic computing technologies and robotics. Future computing and neurotechnologies will significantly change our society.

What impact will the Human Brain Project have on European citizens?

The goal of the Human Brain Project is to set up a European infrastructure for brain research for scientists from Europe and beyond in order to support their research and to provide an open platform with the newest technologies unique data sets, tools and brain atlases. Such an infrastructure does not exist yet in the world, but is prerequisite to take advantage of the data, methods, experiments and results, that are developed somewhere in a lab, but not accessible for others. This creates a synergy, which is necessary to advance research, brain related medicine and technological development. What is similarly important, in my view, is that the Human Brain Project helps to educate a new generation of young scientists, who cross the borders of their disciplines.

What will it change in our lives?

Results from brain research will, both directly and indirectly, more and more influence our lives. Progress in big data analytics, based on, e.g. deep learning enabled by supercomputing, will be a major driver for development of all aspects of the society. At the same time, it raises important questions including data protection, privacy and ethics. In addition, new technologies, inspired by results of brain research will evolve – for example, new service robots, deep-learning based diagnostic tools that assist physicians by proposing detailed diagnosis, and telemedicine that connects patients to experts independently where they are. I would expect that the next year will bring a biologically based classification scheme of neuropsychiatric diseases as a basis for better therapies, and improved preventions based on a deeper knowledge of environmental factors that cause diseases and their interactions with genetic factors.     

What are the key achievements of the Human Brain Project so far? Can you give us some examples?

A key achievement in my view is bringing together many scientists from many disciplines and countries and working together in an interdisciplinary manner towards the same goal, i.e., understanding the human brain. This is a huge advantage in comparison to research in existing, established science communities. Openness is absolutely necessary to be successful to reach our goals. It’s central part is the HBP Joint Platform, supported by open calls to involve new researchers, HBP-hubs in member states so that the national science communities and industry can benefit from the development of the European Research Infrastructure, and, vice-versa, contribute to its development, and other measures for community building.

What are you most proud of in your career?

I am particularly proud that the Human Brain Project has overcome the difficult starting phase, and now develops and implements a coherent concept towards a comprehensive understanding of the human brain, enabled by a new European research infrastructure. There is still a lot to do, but I am convinced that we are on the right way. It is a major challenge, but also a great opportunity to drive forwards such an interesting and important project.

What advice do you have for women wanting to pursue a career in (neuro-) science?

Choose a field in which you are really interested! Intrinsic motivation is absolutely fundamental to pursue a career in science, and also to enjoy it! Strive for realising your ideas and don’t stop just because someone does not like them. Work hard! Build up your own network and consider the support of eminent, senior scientists!

About the Human Brain Project

The Human Brain Project is one of the Future & Emerging Technologies (FET) Flagships of the European Commission aiming to provide researchers worldwide with ICT tools and mathematical models for sharing and analysing large brain data they need for understanding how the human brain works and for emulating its computational capabilities. This Flagship initiative was launched in 2013 and is supported by the European Union. The HBP has the potential to revolutionise the future of neuroscience, medicine, and computing.