In recent years the two largest brain research projects have been a big US project launched in 2013 called the BRAIN Initiative, and a big European Union project launched in 2013 called the Human Brain Project. In July 2018 I wrote a post describing how the BRAIN Initiative had failed to substantiate claims that the human brain is a storage place for memories and that the human brain is the source of our thinking, consciousness and imagination. Looking at an article on the BRAIN Initiative's web site recapping what the big project did in 2019, I see no reason for thinking that the situation has changed very much.
It's rather a bad sign when this "2019 Highlights" article starts off by mentioning some silly experiment in which signs of activity were looked for in the brains of dead pigs a few hours after they died. After some discussion of some research that merely classified cell types and mapped brain circuits, there is mention of a study indicating that the human mind can perform well when one half of the brain is removed. But that isn't a discovery of the BRAIN Initiative, and was proven by hemispherectomy operations that occurred long before the BRAIN Initiative started. Moreover, the finding that he human mind can perform well when one half of the brain is removed is one that is diametrically opposed to the dogmas that the BRAIN Initiative has been trying to prove, claims that the brain is the source of your mind and the storage place of your memories.
Next in the "2019 Highlights" article we have a huge visual of a Science cover talking about the neurobiology of singing mice, along with a claim that some scientist "measured brain activity in musical mice while they sang duets." This is not something that should inspire our confidence, since mice can't really sing. There is no further discussion in the "2019 Highlights" article of anything that backs up the main dogmatic claims that neuroscientists keep making about brains. Judging from the article, the BRAIN Initiative is not making very dramatic progress.
I looked at a News page of the BRAIN Initiative site, to see signs of any recent progress it may have made in trying to prove the things it is trying to prove. I get some links to unimpressive research papers such as this one, "The Anterior Cingulate Cortex Predicts Future States to Mediate Model-Based Action Selection." The paper does not actually provide any good evidence that some brain region is predicting anything, because the study suffered from the usual methodological defects of neuroscience experimental studies. One of the study groups consisted of only 4 animals, another study group consisted of only 2 animals, and three other study groups consisted of only 8 animals. The chance of a false alarm is too high with such tiny study groups. We should ignore most experimental studies that fail to use at least 15 animals for each study group. Moreover, the study makes no mention of any blinding protocol, something important to have for a reliable experimental study; and the study was also was not a pre-registered study that committed itself to testing a particular hypothesis with a particular methodology. With so many shortcomings in the study, the BRAIN Initiative should not have had a headline of "Brain Region Implicated in Predicting the Consequences of Actions" to describe this study, since the study did not provide robust evidence of such a thing.
Looking back through all the articles listed on the News page, and going back all the way to July 2019, I can find no sign of any research that substantiates in any robust way any of the dogmas that the BRAIN Initiative has been trying to prove, such as the very dubious claim that the "brain records, processes, uses, stores, and retrieves vast quantities of information." While we know that humans can acquire memories and retrieve memories, and we know that brain cells (like all cells) store genetic information, there is no robust evidence that the brain stores or retrieves memory information, and no credible detailed theory of how any neural storage or instant retrieval of human episodic memory information could occur. The proteins in synapses and brain tissue are so short-lived (having an average lifetime of less than two weeks) that the brain cannot be a place where memories could be stored for 50 years or more.
On one page of the BRAIN Initiative site, we have a long discussion of some year 2020 symposium featuring speakers funded by the BRAIN Initiative, something called the 6th Annual BRAIN Initiative Investigators Meeting. There is lots of talk about neuroscience research, but nothing substantially supporting claims that brains produce thinking and store memories. I find no use of the words "thought," "thinking," "consciousness", "imagination," "cognition," "reasoning" or "mind." Here are the only references to memory in the long symposium recap:
"Dr. Nanthia Suthana explained how stimulating and recording deep brain activity could help us understand the neurophysiology of hypervigilance and emotional memory in patients with post-traumatic stress disorder....Dr. Kareem Zhangloul explained the relationship between cortical spiking sequences and memory retrieval in humans."
There's no link to any work by these two, and no one has actually established any relationship between brain spiking sequences and memory retrieval. Searching for a paper by Kareem Zhangloul I find a paper that makes these not very exciting claims:
"Bursts of spikes organized into sequences during memory formation. These sequences were replayed during successful memory retrieval. The extent of sequence replay during correct recall was related to the extent to which cortical spiking activity was coupled with ripples in the medial temporal lobe."
Given the fact that the brain is a constant source of electrical activity, with most of its billions of neurons firing more than once per second, we should expect to be able to find by chance some sequences of spikes that occurred both during memory formation and memory retrieval, regardless of whether memories are stored in brains. So such research does not qualify as evidence that memories are retrieved from brains. The type of pareidolia going on in such analysis is rather like what would be going on if you had random fluctuation seismograph readings from hundreds of worldwide sites, and found (upon diligent searching) similar patterns during several different Sunday games when the Pittsburgh Steelers played football.
The BRAIN Initiative page here is entitled "Key Moments in Brain Research." The subtitle is "Explore major milestones in the history of the field, including those stemming from BRAIN-related research programs." But while there's lots of discussion of about administrative milestones and funding milestones, there's no mention of any research accomplishments of the BRAIN Initiative other than a mention of a classification of brain cell types. There is a mention of a Nobel prize, but that was for research done before the BRAIN Initiative started.
Like the BRAIN Initiative, the EU's Human Brain Project has announced goals of proving conventional dogmas about the brain. At the page here we read that "the HBP is conducting a coordinated series of experiments to identify the neuronal mechanisms behind episodic memory, and validate them by computational models and robotic systems." This is an assertion of the unproven dogma that episodic memory can be explained by brain processes; and it is a strange statement, given how silly it is to think that such a dogma could be validated by doing computer models or research into robots. One of the main tabs of the Human Brain Project has the silly title of "Silicon Brains." No such things exist; brains are brains, and computers are computers. The brain bears no resemblance to a digital computer, and has none of the seven things that a computer uses to store and retrieve information. Another page of the Human Brain Project has a title of "Understanding Cognition," but makes no mention of any study or experiment backing up the claim that cognition is produced by brains.
The page here on the Human Brain Project site is entitled "Highlights and Achievements." But while the page refers to many different scientific studies between 2017 and 2020, it provides no good evidence that the Human Brain Project has done anything to substantiate claims that the brain stores memories or that the brain produces consciousness, selfhood, thinking, creativity or imagination. Below are some of the studies mentioned.
- There is a link to a page entitled "Dendrite Activity May Boost Brain Processing Power." But the page confesses, "Neurologically speaking, the physiology that makes the human brain so particularly special and capable remains poorly understood," which makes it sound as if neuroscientists have no factual claims backing up their dogmas about the brain.
- There is a link to a page entitled "The Way of Making Memories." But the page does not discuss any substantial progress in understanding memory, but merely mentions some hardly-worth-mentioning paper entitled, "Regulation of adenylyl cyclase 5 in striatal neurons confers the ability to detect coincident neuromodulatory signals."
- There is a link to a page entitled "Brains of smarter people have bigger and faster neurons." The page merely refers to a scientific study that fails to establish such a claim. The study only provided data on brain characteristics and IQ for about 25 subjects, and merely found weak correlations such as r= .37 and r= .46 and r = .51. The site here says, "The relationship between two variables is generally considered strong when their r value is larger than 0.7." Having such a small study group and such not-very-strong correlations, the study does not justify the claim that brains of smarter people have bigger and faster neurons. It is very easy to get by chance a not-very-strong correlation such as .5 between two unrelated things such as hair length and intelligence, from a check of only a small number of subjects (the likelihood of getting a correlation between unrelated things decreases as the number of subjects rises). The study was not a pre-registered study, so we have no idea whether the authors were checking 50 different things, and reporting on a few cases where a not-very-strong correlation was found by chance variation. To have confidence in a study like this (which could so easily go wrong through subjective analysis), the study would have to have a detailed discussion of how a full-fledged blinding protocol was followed. Instead there is merely a one sentence mention of some half measures to produce a blinding effect. The study lists six patients who scored above 100 in IQ tests just before surgery for brain tumors, which in not what we would expect if brains were producing human intelligence.
- There is a link to a page entitled "How brain cells work together to remember and imagine places." But the page does not discuss any evidence for a brain storage of memories or a brain explanation for imagination. It merely discusses a "computational model."
- There is a link to a page entitled, "Individual Brain Charting: A high-resolution brain map of cognitive functions." But the title is misleading, because it merely discusses some brain scans taken when 12 people were doing particular things. The page has the typical misleading language about such scans, saying, "T
- There is a link to a page entitled, "A First Principles Approach to Memory Recall." But we get no evidence that neuroscientists understand memory recall, something that has never been credibly explained as a brain process. On the page a neuroscientist states this:
- the very short lifetime of brain proteins, only a thousandth of the longest length of time that humans can reliably remember things (60 years);
- the lack of any indexing system or position notation system in a brain that might make possible instant memory recall;
- the failure to discover any proteins or brain mechanisms capable of translating human learned knowledge or episodic memories into synapse states or neuron states;
- the ability of minds to function and remember very well when half of brains are removed;
- the ability of minds to function very well during near-death experiences occuring during cardiac arrest when brains are shut down;
- the very high levels of noise (and very low levels of synaptic signal transmission reliability) in brains, which should preclude a brain from being able to achieve accurate recall of any detailed memory information;
- the lack of any mechanism in the brain for reading or writing memories, and the lack of anything analagous to the read/write head of a computer hard disk;
- the slow speed at which brain signals travel across dendrites and synapses, which should prevent any instant recall of memories;
- the failure to find any permanent encoded information in brains other than the genetic DNA information in all cells.