The Map Makers: Learning How Little We Know About the Brain

James Gorman in The New York Times:

Brain-seattle-videoSixteenByNine1050So many large and small questions remain unanswered. How is information encoded and transferred from cell to cell or from network to network of cells? Science found a genetic code but there is no brain-wide neural code; no electrical or chemical alphabet exists that can be recombined to say “red” or “fear” or “wink” or “run.” And no one knows whether information is encoded differently in various parts of the brain. Brain scientists may speculate on a grand scale, but they work on a small scale. Sebastian Seung at Princeton, author of “Connectome: How the Brain’s Wiring Makes Us Who We Are,” speaks in sweeping terms of how identity, personality, memory — all the things that define a human being — grow out of the way brain cells and regions are connected to each other. But in the lab, his most recent work involves the connections and structure of motion-detecting neurons in the retinas of mice. Larry Abbott, 64, a former theoretical physicist who is now co-director, with Kenneth Miller, of the Center for Theoretical Neuroscience at Columbia University, is one of the field’s most prominent theorists, and the person whose name invariably comes up when discussions turn to brain theory.

…The question now on his mind, and that of many neuroscientists, is how larger groups, thousands of neurons, work together — whether to produce an action, like reaching for a cup, or to perceive something, like a flower. There are ways to record the electrical activity of neurons in a brain, and those methods are improving fast. But, he said, “If I give you a picture of a thousand neurons firing, it’s not going to tell you anything.” Computer analysis helps to reduce and simplify such a picture but, he says, the goal is to discover the physiological mechanism in the data. For example, he asks why does one pattern of neurons firing “make you jump off the couch and run out the door and others make you just sit there and do nothing?” It could be, Dr. Abbott says, that simultaneous firing of all the neurons causes you to take action. Or it could be that it is the number of neurons firing that prompts an action. His tools are computers and equations, but he collaborates on all kinds of experimental work on neuroscientific problems in animals and humans.

More here.