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Is neuroscience mature enough for a #polybrain project to exist?

November 21, 2013

The field of mathematics has been doing fantastic things by bringing people together online to solve math problems. Like the wiki or open source approach, math has been doing polymath projects for years now. It all kicked off when Gowers posted the question, is massively collaborative mathematics possible? It’s a great post full of great ideas, and it turns out the answer is a resounding yes with a steady string of successes. One of the advantages of this talent sharing is that you collapse the world. Anyone with talent or interest could contribute. When I was an undergraduate living across the seas (math major, here), I would have loved to help with a neuroscience theory project, even a little bit.

The most recent polymath success – improving the bound between gaps of primes from 70,000,000 to 4,680 – has me wondering: is massively collaborative neuroscience possible? I think the answer is yes, if the community wants it to be.

The hard part for starting such a project is identifying a question. Seven years ago, van Hemmen and Sejnowski published a book on 23 Problems in Systems Neuroscience. Could these be a good set of questions to work on? The more theoretical or computational the better, as we should assume that there will be no new data forthcoming for such a project. Luckily, though, there is at least one data repository (I think there are more?) . In Izhikevich’s green book there is a list of ‘open problems’ for graduate students. But really: what are the open problems in neuroscience? What is amenable to group work? What are the open problems in theoretical neuroscience?

And would the neuroscience community support such an endeavor? Can we have a polymath project or a github?

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One Comment leave one →
  1. December 20, 2013 6:46 am

    I am a little skeptical, the math community has a very well established web presence, both with blogs and new tools like MathOverflow, and a commitment to open sharing of ideas. I don’t know of anything similar, and although I was originally excited about the Cognitive Sciences StackExchange (awful name, neuroscience is more than on-topic, but it is impossible to convince the overlords that neuroscientists wouldn’t gather that from the name), it has proven to be impossible to turn into a research level (or even undergrad level) resource (I keep trying on occasion, though). We had a similar discussion on one of your previous posts,

    Also, I think the poly-projects require a very different set of criteria for selecting their topics. I don’t think the polymath projects would have gotten anywhere if they picked the big open problems in math (say millennium problems) as their targets. In my opinion, the success of this initiative has relied on Tao’s and Gowers’ keep sense of poly-able problems. I agree with you that the polyneuro projects would require something that is computational in nature.

    If I was trying to find something for biology (and it was some number of years in the past) then I think an effort like the whole-cell computational model would have been poly-able. That project relied on figuring out how to implement in a similar framework and then combine many existing models, something that seems perfect for many minds and github. Maybe there is still a project lurking there in improving this model, or building something similar for E. coli. Could there be something like that for neuroscience? Maybe the OpenWorm initiative to build a complete cellular-level simulation of the Caenorhabditis elegans is already such a project?

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