Besides the great stuff on decision-making, the other part of the main meeting I wanted to discuss were some of the Big Talks. This is the place where some of the Big Guns of neuroscience were just doing their thing, talking about neuroscience.
Bill Bialek gave a talk with the title, “Are we asking the right questions?” His first slide appeared with a large “No” and he declared that it wouldn’t be a particularly interesting talk if the answer was Yes, would it? Unfortunately, Yes was the answer I was hoping for! I had wanted him to give a deep, introspective talk about the questions we’re asking, the things that are right and wrong about them, and how we can ask better questions. I’ve actually been wondering the same thing lately with respect to Bialek’s work. Bill Bialek is a statistical physicist who applies the methods of stat mech to neural systems. He gets really interesting results about the properties of large neural systems and neural coding, but I’m not quite sure if the answers he gets are relevant to the particular questions I’m interested in asking For the record, Bialek thought that we should be thinking about predictive coding. That is, how neurons reflect not information about the environment but rather information that can predict what the environment will be.
Eve Marder studies the lobster stomatogastric ganglia (STG) which is the neural system that controls the stomach, basically. It’s a great setup and has yielded tons of interesting results but there wasn’t exactly tons that was new in the talk. Fortunately, Marder is an excellent lecturer and it was interesting throughout. The most interesting comment that she made is that they actually know the whole connectome of the STG and have the ability to record from neurons in the system for weeks at a time! And yet they still don’t know how it all works. Take that, connectomists.
Terry Sejnowski gave a talk in two parts. Strangely, the first part had little to do with his own research and was instead used as a thematic introduction to the second part of his talk. He spent his time explaining how a camera based on a simple model of the retina – spiking only when it saw a new edge moved across the field of view – was able to naturally accomplish things such as identifying objects that researchers in computer vision have spent decades trying to do, only somewhat successfully. And emulating the retina naturally endows it with other great features such as amazing temporal precision and extremely low energy usage. See? Neuroscience is useful.
This led him to the second part of his talk: the Brain Activity Map (BAM). He started off telling the story of how the NYT article came into being, and why it seemed so sketchy. Basically: when Obama mentioned brain research in his State of the Union, a member of NIH that knew about the project happened to tweet, “Obama supports the Brain Activity Map!” (or something similar). From this one little tweet, the reporter’s instincts kicked in – he’d certainly never heard of any “Brain Activity Map” – and, after calling around to his sources, got the scoop on BAM. Sejnowski was here to finally let the rest of us neuroscientists in on what was going on.
I think a lot of what he talked about has been released in the recent Science perspective, but he certainly was excited about having met Obama… He also said (I think) that the BAM proposal was on a list of ten big science projects, and it beat them out. The data that will be stored – the activity of thousands or even millions of cells simultaneously – will be enormous. Microsoft, Google, and Qualcomm were in on the meetings and apparently basically said, “let us deal with that.” Since the data size is so enormous, the idea will be to have “brain observatories” where the data will reside; the data will be open access and analyses will be done on computers at the ‘observatories’. That way, no one has to worry about downloading the data sets!
Of course, the thing on everyone’s mind is whether funding for BAM will take away funding from other basic neuroscience research. When that came up in questions, Eve Marder said that the NIH heads have been discussing it and they want to make sure that there are no reductions in R01s (the ‘basic’ grant given to researchers). Basically, this is just more money. If it ever passes (to quote Sejnowski: “the hope is that both Democrats and Republicans have brains”).
Again, the important point here is that Sejnowski was really, really excited and it was kind of adorable.
Ah, Tiny Movshon (as my iphone kept trying to autocorrect). This was by far my favorite talk of the meeting, mostly because Movshon basically trolled all the rodent vision people in the audience. He gave a great, contradictory 45 minute talk about how if you’re not doing primate vision, you’re wasting your time. Okay, he really said that the mouse visual system is too different from the primate one to be of any use. Because it’s too evolutionarily far away. Except the cat visual system is great! Even though the cat is even more evolutionarily distant. But whatever, his solution to the problem of not being able to do genetics in monkeys and needing a replacement for mice is – wait for it – the mouse lemur! Obviously. Here is your future cuddly neuroscience overlord:
Anyway, at the end of the talk it was like someone disturbed a bees’ nest. All the rodent vision people were visibly distressed; would it be mean to say that as a lonely invertebrate person it was a nice bit of schadenfreude?