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A Google map of the brain

Dr. Michael Hawrylycz from the Allen Institute gave a lecture on his research on brain atlases at the IMB Distinguished Seminar on October 5.

It was curiosity about the Human Brain Project that enticed the acclaimed researcher to come to Norway.

Professor Michael Hawrylycz

Professor Michael Hawrylycz, Ph.D, Sr. Director, Informatics, Allen Institute for Brain Science, Seattle, USA

Hawrylycz is currently in Oslo because of the Human Brain Project (HBP). HBP is one of the largest projects in the Horizon 2020 scheme, one of EU’s two so-called research flagships and therefore also one of Norway’s biggest contributions to an EU project. Two research groups at IMB are participating in HBP: Jan G. Bjaalie and Trygve Leergaard’s “Neural Systems” and Johan F. Storm’s “Brain Signalling”.

The international importance of the Human Brain Project became clear when Jan Bjaalie met Mike Hawrylycz at a conference in Paris in the summer: Hawrylycz invited himself to Oslo to take a closer look at what Jan and the HBP are doing.

Facilitator for researchers

Hawrylycz is a mathematician and data scientist and one of the world’s foremost researchers in neuroinformatics. He has always worked in the field of applied mathematics and he gradually came to recognize life sciences research as an important and meaningful field of study.

— Then I discovered that I could use mathematics to solve important problems in the field of neuroinformatics.

Hawrylycz is very keen to play a role as facilitator for other researchers, pointing out that he is a data scientist and mathematician who works to make work easier for neurologists. To a large extent, this is also the role of the Allen Institute when it participates in research collaborations.

Neuroscience collaboration

Hawrylycz has been aware of Jan Bjaalie’s work for many years, firstly through the International Neuroinformatics Coordinating Facility (INCF) and more recently through HBP’s Neuroinformatics platform and his research group’s work on brain atlases here at the University of Oslo.

INCF and HBP aim not only to make all their data accessible, but also all their tools – an unprecedented degree of transparency in the field of global research. 


A “Google map of the brain”

Brain atlas research is often called “a Google map of the brain” – a term researchers themselves are not so keen on, while recognizing its usefulness. 

According to Hawrylycz, a good deal of further work is required before we have a map comparable to that of Google’s street view, as he explains:


— If you open an iPhone, you must first understand what all the components are, before you can begin to understand how they function together.

Hawrylycz’ point is that we are still trying to find out about the brain’s components and we have only just begun to understand how some of the components we know about work together. Something resembling Google’s street view is still a long way off…

By Kyrre Vigestad, translated by Deborah Ann Arnfinsen
Published Nov. 8, 2018 7:17 AM - Last modified Nov. 24, 2021 10:06 AM