What Will It Take To Fully Understand The Brain? Scientists Debate @ Swissnex

Rhonda Shrader, published originally on Essinova Blog, March 19th, 2013

Swissnex San Francisco recently hosted a discussion between top scientists from the University of Geneva and Stanford on how neuroscience is changing the understanding of the mind and cognition, and the impact in other fields. The debate is part of an ongoing World Economic Forum series exploring the link between neuroscience, economics and policy.

Like every other science, neuroscience has its fashions. Two enormous theoretical projects have just been introduced–the EU’s Human Brain Project aiming to “simulate a complete human brain in a supercomputer” and the NIH’s $3B Brain Activity Map.On the non-theoretical, side, there is increasing interest in applied sciences such as behavioral economics and adaptive technologies.

Which approach will ultimately prove effective in the global quest to understand the brain? Three themes emerged from this lively debate.

First, while advances in neuroscience have provided a better understanding of the brain, they are far from providing a complete picture. Panelists agreed that although we have made progress relative to where we were, we still only understand about 5%. Integrating other applied disciplines along with the study of behavioral sciences (psychology, sociology, etc.) is key to understanding the brain’s role in the context of a larger system.

Second, more practical applications are necessary. Taking neuroscience out of the lab and interfacing it with the “real” world will have profound philosophical and practical implications. Professor Olivier Ouillier (University of Aix-Marseilles) asked, “How can we take it out of labs? What are we going to do with it if we can? Do we have technology to do it?”

Ouillier cited examples of how rapidly improving technologies are making this practical. For example, EEG controllers are now widely available as controllers for video games and wheelchair movement. More complex technologies such as affordable brain scans combined with artificial sensors that code information from computers are being used to move robotic arms. This technology is also being adapted to empower the disabled in using all five senses to facilitate more independent lives.

Doctoral candidate Charlene Wu (Stanford) is using emotion to predict behavior. This goes against the grain of existing thinking that behavior is an indicator of emotion that is experienced and precipitated by a behavior.

However, Wu pointed out that time scales for measuring activity in the brain are becoming smaller and smaller, so events inside the brain can be observed prior to the initiation of behaviors. This allows researchers to identify and use them to predict emotions preceding behaviors such as “choice”. Wu’s particular field of interest is in the financial sector, exploring how understanding the bias of discounting the future value of rewards can be used to help individuals (and society as a whole) plan for retirement.

The third and final theme revolved around connecting disparate functional dots for a more complete picture of the brain—integrating what we know from cognitive and behavioral sciences along with gene mapping and other structural data.

Moderator Darko Lovric (World Economic Forum) reminded the audience that the brain is the most complex system ever, so even if we don’t have full knowledge and make mistakes, we need to more forward by leveraging what we do know. He elicited a chuckle from the audience with a reminder that although economics is imperfect, governments follow the guidance of classic economists when there is a problem.

Panelists agreed with Prof. Patrick Vuilleumier’s (University of Geneva) conclusion that some people are overselling and there will be mistakes, but we must keep pressing forward.

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