In February 2014, Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban – along with Jozsef Palinkas, the president of the Hungarian Academy of Sciences (MTA), and Tamas Freund, the director of the MTA’s Institute of Experimental Medicine – signed an agreement establishing the Hungarian Brain Research Program. With a budget of 39 million euros spanning four years, this Program has received the largest grant of any branch of science in Hungary, to date. To put the size of the award in perspective, the annual level of funding (approximately 10 million euros per year) is nearly half the annual National Scientific Research Fund dedicated to the full range of scientific research in Hungary.
The Program’s long-term goal is to strengthen the international competitiveness and societal respect of brain research in Hungary, and to contribute to decreasing the societal and economic burden of brain disorders. Establishing a "Neuroscience Network of Excellence" is one of the key points to be addressed in meeting this goal.
As a former chair of the IBRO Central & Eastern Europe Regional Committee – in addition to his recent appointment as a member of the European Commission’s President’s Science and Technology Advisory Council – Professor Freund is well-suited to progressing brain research through promoting international collaboration. Below, he answers some questions about the Hungarian Brain Research Program:
In what ways will the research undertaken with this funding award differ from the scope of the European Union-funded Human Brain Project (HBP), and also the United States’ BRAIN Initiative?
The HBP is somewhat specialized, overarches neuroscience and ICT (Information and Communications Technology), with the aim to eventually model the human brain and use the data for a better understanding and diagnosis of brain disorders and functions, as well as for future computing technologies, simulations and robotics. The US BRAIN Initiative is also a huge endeavor, aiming to map the activity of every single neuron type or area in the human brain. The Hungarian program is more modest: We aim to support projects in which we have significant local expertise or traditions, and which are of considerable functional, pathophysiological or economic importance.
The program rests on five pillars: (1) discovery research, (2) clinical neuroscience, (3) research related to drug development, (4) bionics/infobionics, and (5) societal implications (epidemiology, cost studies, neuroethics, mental hygiene, etc.). Thus, we try to cover all major fields of neuroscience, but within each of these pillars we have to be selective and focus on the most promising projects led by internationally known, leading scientists, and which have realistic and important goals.
An important difference between the goals of the HBP or the Obama initiative and the Hungarian program is that in the latter we try to reverse “brain-drain,” while the former would rather facilitate it. We offer a double professor’s salary, and a grant of about US $1 million to those excellent Hungarian researchers who are willing to return home from abroad and establish a new lab in one of our universities or research institutions. These new labs could reintroduce competitive research into university departments where the huge teaching load on lecturers prevented them from leading top quality research. We also accept as new group leaders those who already work at those departments but had no time for research. Our program will cover their salary for the four years if the university guarantees to decrease their teaching duty to a maximum of 10% of their working time. We are also trying to attract new group leaders from fields closely related neuroscience – e.g. informatics, immunology, physics and mathematics, molecular genetics – who could bring not only new technologies, but also new ways of thinking, and new concepts into brain research.
International collaboration was mentioned as a goal in the Hungarian Brain Research Program, and it also fits with IBRO’s mission. How do you see international collaboration occurring in this project?
Hungarian researchers have always been open to international collaborations, even during the communist system, when Hungarian scientists had many more opportunities to travel to the West than colleagues from other countries of the Soviet bloc. The embedding of Hungarian researchers into the international neuroscience community is largely due to this relatively lucky situation (as well as to the great traditions of neuroscience in Hungary), and resulted in numerous joint EU grants or funding from various US sources. The considerable infrastructural and technological development that will be allowed by our Brain Research Program will hopefully make Hungarian labs even more attractive as collaborative partners worldwide, and thereby this money should attract further funding to Hungary.
Hungarian brain scientists have a long history of making important discoveries and developing new procedures surrounding brain research. Would you please provide some highlights?
Functional neuroanatomy has long been the major strength of Hungarian neuroscience, mostly deriving from the school of Janos Szentagothai. Of the several brain areas he moved through, some emerge where he left a permanent mark by his work, and where his pupils even surpassed him. One of these is the cortical microcircuits, where he and the school of his pupil, Peter Somogyi, made breakthrough discoveries related to the types and wiring of cortical neurons, primarily inhibitory interneurons, and their roles in generating behavior-related oscillations. The book Hypothalamic Control of the Anterior Pituitary, considered the foundation of neuroendocrinology, was authored by four Hungarians: Szentágothai and three of his pupils. Endre Grastyan and the school of his pupil Gyuri Buzsaki made major contributions to the electrophysiological analysis of population discharge patterns in the hippocampus, and brain rhythms in general, as well as their involvement in learning and memory, and epileptogenesis. Miklos Palkovits, the most cited Hungarian scientist, is responsible for the description of numerous monoaminergic, peptidergic, and other transmitter-containing pathways in the rat as well as the human brain. These are only a few of the names and research fields that should be mentioned when the history of Hungarian neuroscience is discussed.
What does it mean to the Hungarian science community, in general, to have such a focus on the brain?
Initial reactions of our colleagues from different fields have been somewhat mixed, but when fellow scientists listen to our reasoning and witness the initiation of similar programs around the world, they begin to agree. In addition, the structuring and operational principles of the program can be used as an example of how to organize major scientific funding programs in other disciplines, and how university teaching may best benefit from such support.
You mentioned that the current program is expected to yield important results in a number of fields within brain science. What are some of these fields, and can you give us any ideas about the breakthroughs you hope to accomplish?
In the field of discovery research there is a new group that is studying the role of thyroid hormones in development and synaptic plasticity; another investigating the mechanisms of ischemic brain damage and inflammatory processes; and yet others working on pathways involved in visual processing in cortex, or pain in the spinal cord, or endocannabinoid signaling, and the role of glucose transporters in ADHD, etc. The most promising projects in the clinical pillar center around fMRI and biomarker studies in traumatic brain injury, optimizing conditions for deep brain stimulation in Parkinsons disease and psychiatric surgery, a search for diagnostic markers in liquor for Alzheimers disease and sclerosis multiplex, the role of non-coding RNA sequences and epigenetic factors in Parkinsons disease, the role of atherosclerosis in obstructive sleep apnoea, etc. In the infobionics pillar, an interesting project aims at the design of microelectromechanical systems (MEMS) and various lab-on-a-chip or closed-loop neurostimulation devices for possible implantation in the treatment of, for example, epilepsy. Thus, we try to ensure that discovery research and clinical neuroscience, or basic and applied research, work hand in hand, and that their support will be balanced.