Brain mega-project to solve brain drain

by Terence MacNamee

We now know more about what the Chinese government are thinking about when it comes to “big science” projects on the human brain. A new picture has emerged from recent presentations and discussions at the Brain Forum held by the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology (EPFL) in Lausanne, and another Swiss-sponsored event on the subject held at Swissnex Shanghai.

The Chinese government are going to set up a nationwide mega-project like the Human Brain Project here in Europe and the BRAIN Initiative in the US. This new project will supersede the existing “Brainnetome”. It will be known as the “China Brain Science Project”. The three aims of the project are:

  1. to study the mechanisms of neuro-circuitry underlying cognitive functions;
  2. to devise early diagnostic and treatment tools for mental or neuro-degenerative illnesses;
  3. to develop intelligent technologies linking brain and machine.

It would seem that aim 1 corresponds to mainstream neuroscience, aim 2 corresponds to the needs of medicine (neurology), and aim 3 corresponds to Artificial Intelligence. It is being said that the Chinese government has backed all three horses, because it found that brain scientists could not agree on a priority.

Meanwhile Li Yanhong, CEO of Baidu Inc. (the main Chinese search engine company), has proposed the development of a national-level artificial intelligence program, which he calls “China Brain”. This may well fit in with aim 3 of the government’s mega-project, though it seems to be his own initiative.

Chinese universities and hospitals are now very active in brain research. This has already prompted a reverse brain-drain from America and Europe. Not too long ago, promising young Chinese brain researchers went abroad, mainly to the US, to qualify in their fields and to get jobs where they could command the laboratory resources they needed. Now with opportunities at home, the Chinese researchers are flocking back to take up appointments at national institutions. There they continue to participate in international exchanges of ideas and findings. In time, we will probably see big names from the Western world going to China to take up appointments there.

The Chinese institutions are happy at the prominence of their American-trained researchers in the international journals and forums. It remains to be seen whether they will take a hand in organising the world of brain science themselves rather than just playing by Western (American) rules. There is some indication of an independent perspective in the stated desire of some researchers to apply the insights of traditional Chinese medicine to these fields.