Monday, April 06, 2015

Cognitive Neuroscience 2015: State of the Union

What can we do to solve the mind/body problem once and for all? How do we cure devastating brain diseases like Alzheimer's, Parkinson's, schizophrenia, and depression? I am steadfast in following the course of my 500 year plan that may eventually solve these pressing issues, to the benefit of all Americans!

There's nothing like attending a conference in the midst of a serious family illness to make one take stock of what's important. My mind/brain has been elsewhere lately, along with my body in a different location. My blogging output has declined while I live in this alternate reality. But aside from the disunion caused by depersonalization/derealization, what is my view of the state of Cognitive Neuroscience in 2015?

But first, let's examine what we're trying to unify. Studies of mind and studies of brain?  Cognition and neuroscience?  Let's start with “neuroscience”.

Wikipedia says:
Neuroscience is the scientific study of the nervous system. Traditionally, neuroscience has been seen as a branch of biology. ... The term neurobiology is usually used interchangeably with the term neuroscience, although the former refers specifically to the biology of the nervous system, whereas the latter refers to the entire science of the nervous system. 

This reminds me of a recent post by Neuroskeptic, who asked: Is Neuroscience Based On Biology? On the face of it, this seemed like an absurd question to me, because the brain is a biological organ and of course we must know its biology to understand how it works. But what he really meant was, Is Cognitive Science Based On Biology? I say this because he adopted a functionalist view and used the brain-as-computer metaphor:
Could it be that brains are only accidentally made of cells, just as computers are only accidentally made of semiconductors? If so, neuroscience would not be founded on biology but on something else, something analogous to the mathematical logic that underpins computer science. What could this be?

See John Searle on Beer Cans & Meat Machines (1984):
This view [the brain is just a digital computer and the mind is just a computer program] has the consequence that there’s nothing essentially biological about the human mind. The brain just happens to be one of an indefinitely large number of different kinds of hardware computers that could sustain the programs which make up human intelligence. ... So, for example, if you made a computer out of old beer cans powered by windmills, if it had the right program. It would have to have a mind.

The infamous argument-by-beer-cans. In the end, Neuroskeptic admitted he's not sure he subscribes to this view. But the post sparked an interesting discussion. There were a number of good comments, e.g. Jayarava said: “Neuro-science absolutely needs to be neuron-science, to focus on brains made of cells because that's what we need to understand in the first place.” Indeed, some neuroscientists don't consider “cognitive neuroscience” to be “neuroscience” at all, because the measured units are higher (i.e., less reductionist) than single neurons.1

A comment by Adam Calhoun gets to the heart of the matter, making a sharp point about the disunity of neuroscience:
Although we use the term 'neuroscience' as though it refers to one coherent discipline, the problem here is that it does not. If you were to pick a neuroscientist at random and ask: "what does your field study?" you will not get the same answer two times in a row.

Neural development? Molecular pathways? Cognition? Visual processing? Are these the same field? Or different fields that have been given the same name?

One of the selling points of neuroscience is its interdisciplinary nature, but it's really hard to talk to each other if we don't speak the same language (or work in the same field). Some graduate programs dwell in an idealized world where students can become knowledgeable in molecular, cellular, developmental, systems, and cognitive neuroscience in one year. The reality is that professors in some subfields couldn't pass the exams given in another subfield. And why would they possibly want to do this, given they're way too busy writing grants.

Sometimes I think cognitive neuroscience is on a completely different planet from the other branches, estranged from even its closest cousin, behavioral neuroscience.2 It's even further away these days from systems neuroscience3 which used to be dominated by the glamour of single unit recordings in monkeys, but now is all about manipulating circuits with opto- and chemogenetics.

But as the Systems/Circuits techniques get more and more advanced (and invasive and mechanistic), the gulf between animal and human studies grows larger and the prospects for clinical translation fade.  [Until the neuroengineers come in and save the day.]

I'll end on a more optimistic note, with a quote from a man who wished to bridge the gap between Aplysia californica and Sigmund Freud.


1 And often not even a direct measure of neural activity at all (e.g. the hemodynamic response in fMRI). The rare exceptions to this are studies in patients with epilepsy, which have revealed the existence of Marilyn Monroe neurons and Halle Berry neurons and (my personal favorite) the rare multimodal Robert Plant neuron in the medial temporal lobe.

2 Though if you look at the mission of the journal called Behavioral Neuroscience, its scope has broadened to include just about anything:
We seek empirical papers reporting novel results that provide insight into the mechanisms by which nervous systems produce and are affected by behavior. Experimental subjects may include human and non-human animals and may address any phase of the lifespan, from early development to senescence.

Studies employing brain-imaging techniques in normal and pathological human populations are encouraged, as are studies using non-traditional species (including invertebrates) and employing comparative analyses. Studies using computational approaches to understand behavior and cognition are particularly encouraged.

In addition to behavior, it is expected that some aspect of nervous system function will be manipulated or observed, ranging across molecular, cellular, neuroanatomical, neuroendocrinological, neuropharmacological, and neurophysiological levels of analysis. Behavioral studies are welcome so long as their implications for our understanding of the nervous system are clearly described in the paper.

3 Actually, systems neuroscience is mostly about engineering and computational modelling these days.

Some Final Definitions (for the record)

The Society for Neuroscience (SfN) explanation of what neuroscientists do:
Neuroscientists specialize in the study of the brain and the nervous system. They are inspired to try to decipher the brain’s command of all its diverse functions. Over the years, the neuroscience field has made enormous progress. Scientists continue to strive for a deeper understanding of how the brain’s 100 billion nerve cells [NOTE: the number is only 86 billion] are born, grow, and connect. They study how these cells organize themselves into effective, functional circuits that usually remain in working order for life.

The SfN mission:
SfN advances the understanding of the brain and the nervous system by bringing together scientists of diverse backgrounds, facilitating the integration of research directed at all levels of biological organization, and encouraging translational research and the application of new scientific knowledge to develop improved disease treatments and cures. 

The CNS mission:
The Cognitive Neuroscience Society (CNS) is committed to the development of mind and brain research aimed at investigating the psychological, computational, and neuroscientific bases of cognition.

The term cognitive neuroscience has now been with us for almost three decades, and identifies an interdisciplinary approach to understanding the nature of thought.

And according to Wikipedia:
Cognitive neuroscience is an academic field concerned with the scientific study of biological substrates underlying cognition,[1] with a specific focus on the neural substrates of mental processes. It addresses the questions of how psychological/cognitive functions are produced by neural circuits in the brain. Cognitive neuroscience is a branch of both psychology and neuroscience, overlapping with disciplines such as physiological psychology, cognitive psychology and neuropsychology.[2] Cognitive neuroscience relies upon theories in cognitive science coupled with evidence from neuropsychology and computational modeling.[2]

Barack Obama, Jan. 24, 2012:
“…We should all want a smarter, more effective government. And while we may not be able to bridge our biggest philosophical differences this year, we can make real progress. With or without this Congress, I will keep taking actions that help the economy grow. But I can do a whole lot more with your help. Because when we act together, there is nothing the United States of America can’t achieve.”

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At April 06, 2015 12:23 PM, Anonymous Tannahill Glen said...

I'm totally on the Optimist side. Isn't there as much super-specialization in other fields (e.g., electrophysiol, physiol., failure, transplant, development, nuclear, interventional, all in cardiology for instance?) Brain science strives to make tangible the essence of the most intangible: soul, thought, infinity etc. No other science has to balance such an absurdity and still win Nobels.

At April 08, 2015 7:04 AM, Blogger Dwight Dickinson said...

I think Bill Gates often says that he is a long-term optimist and a short-term pessimist. I have the short-term pessimist part down. I am struggling to remain optimistic about longer-term prospects. I have studied cognition and mental illness for many years. Our methods and knowledge have advanced enormously during my years in the field. Big data accummulates at an astonishing pace. Yet the clinical pay-off for all this work has been pretty meager. A 500-year plan sounds about right to me at the moment -- of course, this pushes us into the realm of scientific faith, far beyond anything that is actually forseeable. Here's a question I have been wondering about lately. Can the scientific method and biological investigation get us where we need to go? Isn't it possible that the things that, ultimately, we most need to understand (eg, 50-way genetic/environmental/developmental interactions) are the least amenable to experimental, biological investigation?


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