Understanding the Brain: Grand Challenge project

In May 2018, HiLIFE invited projects that tackle Grand Challenges of health and well-being. We proposed a project “Understanding the Brain” that was based on the Helsinki Brain & Mind (HB&M) network being initiated at that time and initially included 56 Principal Investigators from UH, Aalto and the University Hospital (HUS). After two rounds of evaluation by the HiLIFE Scientific Council and a merger of a smaller project into it, Understanding the Brain, finally including 60 PIs, was awarded as one of the HiLIFE Grand Challenge (GC) projects at the end of 2018.

Understanding the Brain proposed to integrated multidisciplinary approach where life sciences, medicine, psychology, computation and engineering join forces, in cooperation with HB&M and the Neurocenter Finland.  Focus was in the development and advance of models and tools that bridge neuroscience of human and experimental animal brain. The following main areas of development were listed in the Understanding the brain proposal:

  1. Human genetics together with the excellent patient registers are strengths in Finland and several ongoing projects of genome-wide sequencing are focusing on brain disorders, including schizophrenia and addictions. Insights from these projects will be evaluated and extended using cerebral organoids and other cellular models derived from induced iPSCs from patients with a brain disorder as well as in animal models (rodents, dog, zebrafish).
  2. Human brain imaging is a strong research area in HB&M. This is complemented by imaging of rodents in various disease models. Optical imaging of living and awake mice and neuroimaging instrumentation have been strategically developed at the UH and Aalto, respectively. We will establish translational imaging-based platform for human-rodent research models (behavior, MEG, fMRI, optical imaging) as essential tools for cutting-edge research.
  3. We will expand the internationally leading role of Helsinki in the field of neurotrophic factors, regeneration and plasticity and apply these to neurodegenerative, cerebrovascular, metabolic, addictive and affective disorders.
  4. The effects of adverse early life experiences on brain development, disorders and aging will be investigated in a parallel fashion in humans and experimental models to gain insight into neurobiology of development and to develop preventive and curative treatments.
  5. Lack of technologies for measuring neurotransmitter release and neuronal functions in high temporal and spatial resolution is a limiting factor for better understanding of neuronal functions in vitro and in vivo. We will develop a completely new technological platform to aid the identification and validation of novel drug targets for nervous system diseases using a carbon nanostructure based interface for parallel electrical recording, transmitter detection and drug delivery in brain tissues and a system integrating optical imaging and multielectrode arrays for studies of neuronal cultures.

Since the funding was relatively modest given the number of participating PIs, we decided to launch a call for small pilot projects that would advance cooperation between the Institutions that constitute the HB&M, Aalto, HUS and UH and would help to attract additional funding.  We received 16 applications. To further process and consolidate the applications, Understanding the Brain organized a workshop at Dipoli 26th Sept 2019.  The atmosphere in the workshop was enthusiastic and highly constructive.  Lead PIs introduced their proposed projects and then projects that were in related areas developed their ideas together.

Finally, the workshop consolidated the applications into 8 pilot projects that were granted as small seed funding to develop them further.  These selected projects were:

  • Sleep in Promoting Human Health, Tiina Paunio
  • Improving the recognition of autoimmune and infectious causes of first psychotic episode, Jarno Honkanen
  • Quantum behavior, Petri Ala-Laurila
  • Translational neuroscience across scales and species, Satu Palva
  • Helsinki TMS Hub, Hanna Renvall
  • N-of-1: Global Ecosystem for Private Biometric Data Management and Technology-Assisted Biofeedback, Leonard Khirug
  • Carbon nanostructure based interface for nervous system research and diagnostics, Henna Tyynismaa

These projects are now ongoing, some of them are almost finalized already.  Unfortunately, Covid19 has hampered the progress at a critical point.

Understanding the Brain was the critical project that laid foundation for the establishment of the HB&M network that subsequently has successfully received additional funding from the EU.  Furthermore, this project was the seed for the Profiling actions on UHBrain that is currently advancing within the University of Helsinki and hopefully will lead to a major project the advance and consolidate neuroscience research within the University of Helsinki together with its partners Aalto and HUS.  Therefore, while still ongoing, the GC project has already by now proven to be highly successful in reaching its main goal, the consolidation and strengthening of neuroscience research within the University of Helsinki.