Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Neuroscience research

Yesterday Columbia University announced a very large gift establishing the endowment for the Zuckerman Mind Brain Behavior Institute at Columbia. In addition to its timeliness it's an exciting effort to bring together work in neuroscience, decision-making, imaging with the humanities. The institute will build on the work of Nobel Laureates Eric Kandel and Richard Axel, among others. If you haven't Kandel's books "In Search of Memory" and "The Age of Insight" (my review of the latter in the Brooklyn Bugle is here) I highly recommend them. And here's an earlier post of mine with links to some interesting articles about the science of decision-making.

Columbia held a forum on interdisciplinary neuroscience  in conjunction with the announcement. From the discussion it's clear that the institute is still taking shape. The panelists mostly described the contributions the various disciplines will bring, and they expressed some hopes for useful research in the first decade.

Richard Axel spoke more philosophically (and I am paraphrasing). Axel said that the brain is the most complex structure in the universe, and we don't understand it. We have learned that an individual alone cannot understand the brain - and plenty of individuals in disciplines ranging from philosophy to biology have tried. Moreover, the mind doesn't lend itself to verbal description. The institute is being formed to find new ways to address the problem.

The mind is particularly elusive, Axel went on, because neurons (nerve cells) are not like liver cells or heart cells, where genes control the behavior. Neurons themselves do not control behavior either; that is the job of neurosystems. Neurosystems are large and complex, with trillions of connections. The brain itself abstracts each system - and translates higher order notions into the firing of neurons. It's like abstract art, he said. And the task is to understand the meaning of this abstraction.

It will be interesting to see, in 30 years, what the institute looks like. Meanwhile, you can read Columbia's press release and watch a short video about the institute here.

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