Sunday, April 7, 2013

Skepticism about Obama's Brain Project

"When you look at the cerebellum it's a godawful mess" says Randy Gallistel, and its circuitry is very regular. Some remarks at

BTW, the whole discussion is worthwhile. Gallistel makes the point that the human genome project was driven by a good computational model of what the genome does. We have no such model for the nervous system. In particular, we don't know how read-write memory is implemented in the nervous system. Read-write memory is essential to all computation.

And THAT's what the discussion is about, memory. The action potential ("spike") carries information from one place to another in the nervous system. But what carries information forward in time?

If you're interested in a somewhat detailed and technical account of Gallistel's views on memory, see this paper: Gallistel CR, Matzel LD. 2013. The neuroscience of learning: Beyond the Hebbian Synapse (PDF). Annual Review of Psychology 64: 169-200.


  1. Y'all were conflating connectomics (anatomical mapping) with what BRAIN-I is supposedly about: making new technologies that will enable large-scale simultaneous recordings.

    We don't have a model of how nervous systems work - that's why we need new tools! You have to link circuits to behavior, which means you need ways to study circuits holistically and not just one cell pair at a time.

  2. I understand that the discussion made that mistake. Still, I'm sympathetic to Gallistel's larger point, that collecting the data won't do you much good if you don't already have some idea of what's going on. It seems to me that neuroscience has a pretty long record of being clever about gathering data and unimaginative about models of what's going on. We'll see.

  3. BTW, Jason, I went over to your blog and blitzed through some of your extensive commentary on this project. Most interesting. In particular, I'd read through the piece in Neuron and wondered what this folks were smoking. In particular I wondered how they expected to figure out just exactly where all their nanobots had been located once they'd magically managed to extract them from the brain. Glad I'm not the only one who was puzzled about that. But I am wondering how those comments passed editorial review. Maybe Neuron called on the crew that allowed Sokol's infamous hoax paper to get published.

    And I understand that the project that's being funded is somewhat more conservative. Still, I'm a bit skeptical.