How to Study the Brain

Marcus, Marblestone and Freeman in Chronicle of Higher Education:

“As humans, we can identify galaxies light years away, we can study particles smaller than an atom. But we still haven’t unlocked the mystery of the three pounds of matter that sits between our ears.” —President Obama, April 2, 2013

Photo_56389_wide_largeThe human brain contains roughly 86 billion neurons and trillions, perhaps hundreds of trillions, of intricate interconnections among those neurons. There are hundreds, maybe thousands of different kinds of cells within the brain. And—after nearly two centuries of research—exactly zero convincing theories of how it all works. Why is it so hard to figure out how the brain functions, and what can we do to face the challenges? The time to address these questions is now; the quotation above from the president came as he announced a projected 12-year project known as the BRAIN Initiative, and a few months earlier Europe announced big steps of its own, a 1.2-billion-euro effort to simulate the human brain. China, Japan, and a number of nations are also planning major investments. There is real reason to believe that the field is on the verge of a number of methodological breakthroughs: Soon we will be able to study the operation of the brain in unprecedented detail, yielding orders of magnitude more data than the field has ever seen before. And that is a good thing. On virtually any account, neuroscience needs more data—a lot more data—than it has.

…Neuroscience has been around for roughly two centuries, but progress remains painfully slow. We still don’t know how the brain works, and our categories for analyzing things like brain injuries and mental illness range from vague to antediluvian. As the neurosurgeon Geoffrey Manley, at the University of California at San Francisco, recently pointed out at a White House-sponsored meeting, traumatic brain injuries are still sorted into just three categories: “mild,” “moderate,” and “severe”; the field still has no reliable way of being more precise in predicting whether someone is likely to fully recover cognitively from a severe concussion. With over half a billion people around the world suffering from debilitating brain disorders, whether depression, schizophrenia, autism, Alzheimer’s disease, or traumatic brain disorder, it is no exaggeration to say that significant progress in neuroscience could fundamentally alter the world. But getting there will require more than just big data alone. It will require some big ideas, too.

More here.