Advanced infrastructure will revolutionise brain research

April 24, 2024

The European research infrastructure EBRAINS enables neuroscientists to share, find and use data in new and far more effective ways than before. – By developing an advanced, digital infrastructure for brain research, EBRAINS - the «Human Brain Project» - has made it possible to carry out new studies which will increase our understanding of the workings and complex structure of the brain, says Jan Bjålie, professor, vice dean for research and innovation and leader of the infrastructure development of this major EU project since 2018. – This problem is recognised by Norway’s Research Council and by all Norwegian universities, who are now demanding that research data be made publicly accessible, says Leergaard. The ambition of the project is to revolutionise brain research by means of international collaboration, readily accessible data and advanced digital tools. In addition, we are participating in international collaborations in order to ensure more long-term funding of EBRAINS as a European research infrastructure, concludes Leergaard.

The European research infrastructure EBRAINS enables neuroscientists to share, find and use data in new and far more effective ways than before.

Professor and vice dean for research and innovation, Jan Bjålie. Photo: Åsne Rambøl Hillestad, UiO

Over the last 10 years, Norwegian researchers have helped to develop new data-sharing services, combined with a three-dimensional, digital brain atlas.

– By developing an advanced, digital infrastructure for brain research, EBRAINS - the «Human Brain Project» - has made it possible to carry out new studies which will increase our understanding of the workings and complex structure of the brain, says Jan Bjålie, professor, vice dean for research and innovation and leader of the infrastructure development of this major EU project since 2018.

The brain atlas is like a mapping solution for the brain

An important contribution to the infrastructure from the Neural Systems research group at the University of Oslo has been the development of tools that enable researchers to link their data to a three-dimensional brain atlas. This gives both precise information about which part of the brain the data come from and also the facility to compile and analyse data originating from many sources and collected by different methods.

– This can be compared with map solutions on the internet which provide different kinds of information about a particular location by means of map coordinates, explains professor Trygve Leergaard. Together with Bjålie, he is co-leader of the Neural Systems research group and contributes to the development of the brain atlas used by EBRAINS.

Too little data-sharing so far

– Diseases affecting the brain represent a large cost to the health system and to society. The brain is the most complicated structure we know of. Although over 100 years of research carried out by neural scientists has revealed a great deal about the structure and function of the brain, we still know too little about how the brain functions as we grow up, age or fall ill and effective treatments are still lacking to a large degree, says Leergaard.

In order to understand and model the brain, available data must be correlated and up until now, this has been difficult because research methods, measurements and results have differed and been unavailable for other scientists to use. It is precisely correlations of this kind that EBRAINS aims to facilitate.

– There has been a lack of willingness and opportunity to share data from research projects, says Leergaard.

Research findings are traditionally published in scientific articles that only reveal a small amount of information, while the huge amounts of data and raw data that formed the basis of the article often remain inaccessible. Most kinds of brain research data have therefore been under-utilised and there is a great potential for re-using data for the purpose of analysis and solving other research questions, or to test new methods of analysis.

– This problem is recognised by Norway’s Research Council and by all Norwegian universities, who are now demanding that research data be made publicly accessible, says Leergaard.

The FAIR principles must be followed

During recent years, there has been growing acceptance for the so-called FAIR principles which state that research data must be Findable, Accessible, Interoperable and Re-usable.

As early as in 2018, while working on her doctoral thesis, Ingvild E. Bjerke, neural scientist and member of the Neural Systems group, wrote the following in her medicine blog:

«If research data are to be relevant and valuable over and above answering a specific question in a given article, there is clearly a need to improve and standardise the way research is reported. We want our findings to contribute towards drawing attention to this need.»

The value of data will be greatly increased

– Descriptions are often lacking that could enable other scientists to find and re-use research data, says Ingvild Bjerke.

– Valuable, stored data lose their value if there is no information to explain the findings or the methods used to generate them. The aim of a research project is usually to publish the results in a scientific article, so it has not been normal practice to store results and data so that they can be re-used. Furthermore, scientists often keep to their own methods, which are difficult for others to understand, adds Leergaard.

Since both the universities, the Research Council and the majority of international scientific journals now require data-sharing in accordance with FAIR principles, it is much easier for valuable research data to become available and so increase in value. Researchers of the NeSys group at UiO are on hand to help Norwegian scientists structure and quality-assure data so that they can be published by EBRAINS.

Many specialists have contributed to EBRAINS

The work behind the development of EBRAINS has been carried out in large, interdisciplinary teams of neuroscientists, computer scientists, engineers, physicists, ethicists, statisticians and philosophers. The Human Brain Projects, one of the EU’s largest projects, came to a close in autumn 2023 and was very well received by independent experts.

The new infrastructure is now under further development through the project EBRAINS 2.0, funded by a grant of 38 million euro from the EU and with the aim of creating a good operating model for the infrastructure. The ambition of the project is to revolutionise brain research by means of international collaboration, readily accessible data and advanced digital tools.

Scientists expect great savings

It is often said that data is «the new gold» and Leergaard believes that there are strong indications that open access to big data will open the door to new types of large-scale analyses, not least through the use of artificial intelligence:

– We expect that EBRAINS will lead to considerable savings in the future when it comes to research costs and animal experiments, resulting in more ethical, economical and effective research.

An important objective for the EBRAINS 2.0 project is to render the infrastructure more efficient and to establish a long-term operating model with a permanent staff tasked with operating the infrastructure and providing training and quality control.

– We are currently taking active steps to introduce EBRAINS and the different resources we offer to several other Norwegian researchers. In addition, we are participating in international collaborations in order to ensure more long-term funding of EBRAINS as a European research infrastructure, concludes Leergaard.

The source of this news is from University of Oslo

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