Message from the President: Exploring the Middle Ground Between Gene Networks and Cognition
Neuroscience in the last quarter of the 20th century was revolutionized by two fields at opposite ends of the spectrum: molecular neuroscience, inspired by Watson and Crick’s double helix model, and cognitive neuroscience, enabled by MRI technology applied to living humans. These fields were pioneered by highly creative scientists who forged new, paradigm-shifting conceptual frameworks, as well as by equally creative mathematicians and engineers who developed new technologies for genome-wide analyses and computer graphics approaches to visualizing complex 3D volumes such as the brain.
The time is right in the 21st century for creative neuroscientists, mathematicians, and engineers to revolutionize thinking about how the nervous system works at the systems level, a middle-of-the-spectrum view providing a conceptual framework for molecular neuroscience at one end and cognitive neuroscience at the other. What is the basic wiring diagram of the nervous system? What are the parts, how does each work, and how are they interconnected to function as a whole? What are the design features of this circuitry, and what are the architectural principles? Systems neuroscience does not benefit from an established conceptual framework like molecular biology’s double helix, chemistry’s periodic table of the elements, or physiology and medicine’s circulatory system model. Without such a framework neuroscience cannot explain the mind and behavior in mechanistic terms because, in the end, the nervous system is an organized network of connections between spatially segregated sets of neurons.
The Obama administration’s BRAIN Initiative holds great promise for all domains of neuroscience, including systems neuroscience, because, if history is any guide, innovative neurotechnologies will lead to new conceptual breakthroughs in understanding the organization and function of these connections. We know that, gram for gram, the brain is the most complex object on earth, but, for the first time that complexity does not seem insurmountable to computer scientists used to dealing with the complexity of today’s internet. The availability of vast amounts of computer memory has spurred the age of big data, where previously unimaginable amounts of structural and functional neuroscience data (at very high spatial and temporal resolution) can be collected, stored, analyzed, modeled by theoretical neuroscientists, and made available publicly online.
Devising a conceptual framework will require a blend of creativity, scientific rigor, and advanced technology. These three qualities are the heart of this year’s special events at Neuroscience 2013 in San Diego, making it an unparalleled place to discuss and shape the field’s exciting future.
Creativity is at the heart of two events taking place on opening day of Neuroscience 2013. The popular Dialogues Between Neuroscience and Society lecture features Ed Catmull, president of Walt Disney and Pixar Animation Studios. Catmull received his PhD in computer science from the University of Utah, where in Ivan Sutherland’s lab he discovered fundamental computer graphics algorithms and vowed to make the first computer-animated movie within a decade. Less than a decade later, George Lucas hired Catmull at Lucasfilm, and when Steve Jobs bought Lucasfilm in 1986 and founded Pixar, Catmull became the chief technical officer. Catmull won an Oscar in 1993 for his development of PhotoRealistic RenderMan software, and, in 1996, the first computer-animated feature film, Toy Story, was released by Pixar. Catmull’s presentation at Neuroscience 2013, followed by a Q&A with the audience, will deal with the unique creative atmosphere he and his colleagues developed at Pixar.
The annual Fred Kavli Public Symposium will also focus on creativity. Hosted by Antonio Damasio, theoretical neuroscientist and director of the new University of Southern California Brain and Creativity Institute, the theme will be creativity and the brain. The panel will include a music scholar and composer, an artist, and an inventor.
Scientific Rigor and Advanced Technology
Scientific rigor and advanced technology are always at the center of the annual meeting, and will be highlighted in Presidential Special Lecture series, organized around the theme “reinventing systems neuroscience: functional connectome architecture.” The first lecturer is Scott Emmons, whose research team uses modern technology to probe the structure-function organization of the entire nervous system of the primitive roundworm, C. elegans. The first complete connectome was published in the 1980s using early technology; Emmons’s reanalysis is revealing surprising new insights.
The second lecture is presented by Gerald Rubin, whose research group is attempting to genetically label every neuron type in the fly brain, with the ultimate goal of describing and manipulating its much more complex connectome. The third lecture is by Jeff Lichtman, who will discuss his strategy for mapping the wiring diagram of the mouse brain at very high resolution. Finally, the last Presidential Special Lecture will be given by Doris Tsao on strategies to define the structure-function organization networks in the cerebral cortex of humans and other primates.
Past and Future
The field of neuroscience, and SfN itself, has come a long way since the first SfN meeting in Washington, D.C., in 1971. As we look to a bright future, I encourage us to honor that history and find in it the roots of future innovation. For instance, the SfN meeting offers the History of Neuroscience lecture, this year given by Roy Wise, who will explore attempts to unravel the neural basis of reward and point to unanswered questions that require fresh approaches. I am also very excited that SfN is starting efforts to chronicle the early years of the Society, documenting how SfN has helped to support and shape the last 43 years of basic neuroscience to make today’s remarkable discoveries and applications possible.
Yes, today there are very real challenges for neuroscience given current funding trajectories and consequences for the scientific enterprise. Yet it remains an incredibly exciting time to be a neuroscientist, and I am confident we will weather these times and that the coming decades will be a era of great progress for neuroscience. Especially in these times, attending the SfN meeting is an important and rewarding way for us to connect, affirm, and advance the field’s extraordinary future, while also working together to advocate for global support of neuroscience and our scientific community.
What a contrast 2013 has been from SfN’s earliest days — first the European Union’s 1 billion euro Human Brain Project was announced, followed by the Obama BRAIN Initiative, which has the potential to evolve into another field-changing project. What next? Exciting times cry out for creative new conceptual and technical directions. As we get closer to developing a viable conceptual framework for the nervous system, possibilities continue to open up for scientists working to answer important and pressing medical questions with profound implications for society as a whole. Neuroscience continues to rely on creativity, scientific rigor, and advanced technology for making breakthroughs, and these will be on extraordinary display at Neuroscience 2013. See you in San Diego!