Brain Facts

Brain Facts

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Forecasting the Next 50 Years in Neuroscience

Newscientist presented an article containing the views of over 70 scientists, including about a half dozen neuroscientists, over forecasting 50 years into the future. Apparently, the scientists' views were limited to 250 words or less, with the result being that most were limited to superficial or otherwise meaningless blurbs. It doesn't get much worse than Oliver Sacks' forecast:

"I expect a general theory of imagination, consciousness and self that will be powerful and illuminating a€“ and applicable in principle to sentient species everywhere. A happy coming-together of physiology, psychology and philosophy a€“ the a€œPPPa€? I dreamed about as a student 50 years ago."

Thanks for the info, Oliver! Very enlightening! Note that the grammatical errors are not mine. And this is what the Newscientist article considers a "brilliant mind"?


Or how about the forecast from Michael Gazzaniga?

"The next 50 years will focus on the social mind, the fact that humans are social animals and that most of the time our personal mental state is to be thinking about relationships. Does our species have a moral compass? Do we mostly get along because we enjoy common reactions to similar challenges? Can we truly understand how we understand others, their intentions, desires and beliefs? Understanding these issues is what is coming down the pike."

How do you expect to understand the social mind when you don't understand the mind, period? Sorry, but fMRI doesn't tell you much of anything. I predict that the whole edifice of fMRI will be obsolete within 20 years because 1) it is very low resolution, orders of magnitude coarser than individual neurons, and 2) it only reflects blood oxygenation levels and is not a good measure of neural activity. Similar comments apply to Daniel Schacter, whose vacuous forecast I won't deign to post.


Or let's see about the forecast from Antonio Damasio:

"Most of what I regard as exciting in recent neuroscience has concentrated on two broad areas: molecular neurobiology and an understanding of the systems related to cognition and behavior. The future will no doubt promote advances in those two areas. On the molecular side, it will be possible to know how so few genes (relatively speaking) create so much complexity in the human brain. On the systems side, it will be possible to fill in several missing links on the march between the specifications of genes and the neural structures and operations which support behavior and cognition. Once we get to that, the primordial soup will not look so far in the past."


*yawn*
Not much of a prediction here. Perhaps not surprising considering that Damasio is not a "real" neuroscientist but rather a neurologist.

While I've held a somewhat negative view of Christof Koch ever since I heard him deliver an embarrassingly ridiculous lecture about consciousness and its connection with the brain a few years back, somewhat surprisingly, I think that his forecast is the most insightful of the bunch:

"Neuroscience needs to move beyond observing the brain in action to directly experimenting on it, thus allowing us to go past correlation to causation.

There are some ideas about how to do this. Molecular biologists are developing ways of switching small groups of neurons in an animal's brain off and on again, so the effect on behaviour can be observed. This technique will become routine over the next decade but will probably always remain of limited value to the human brain. Directly stimulating bits of the brain with microelectrodes is another approach, but requires opening the skull.

Neuro-engineers will develop better techniques. One possibility is using focused electromagnetic fields to target a small volume of brain matter, say the size of a pin head, from outside the skull. More likely is an implantable, organo-electrical brain-machine interface. The first use of such interfaces will be for research and neuroprosthetics, but their immense promise for enhancing the human mind and for effecting some sort of human-machine blend will begin to be realised by 2056."

Finally, a worthwhile and insightful prediction! He did leave out a few things, including the role of theoretical and computational neuroscience (too bad Henry Markram, Stephen Grossberg, or Teuvo Kohonen didn't make any forecasts; Terry Sejnowski did but surprisingly it left out any mention of theoretical or computational neuroscience).

Another point that Koch misses is that, it is not about going beyond correlation to causation, but rather about going from merely observing and describing the brain to controlling, modifying, extending, and enhancing it. It is about going from playing the role of passive observer to active participant. Right now, most neuroscience studies and methods focus on describing the brain in ever more detail. But the tools for modifying and controlling the brain, and for modifying and controlling neural activities, structures, and connectivities, are meager at best. Not only will the level of description become more comprehensive, so that, for example, the entire brain will be mapped out at protein or molecular level resolution, but novel techniques will come to the fore for controlling and manipulating neural activies, structures, and connectivities. It is to be expected that theoretical and computational neuroscience will keep pace with developments on the experimental side and will contribute to a better conceptual understanding of exactly what it is that the brain does and how it does it, in computational and physical terms, which in turn, will have a profound impact on the neural network and artificial intelligence communities. This is where neuroscience will be headed in the next 50 years!

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