Monday Open Thread: The Six Problems of Systems Neuroscience

I was brainstorming experiments and decided to make a list of what I think are the fundamental questions in systems neuroscience:

  1. Sensory: How do we represent the world?
  2. Motor: How do we create an action?
  3. Decision: How do we choose among competing alternatives?
  4. Learning: How do we remain plastic in changing environments?
  5. Computation: What are the underlying algorithms and computations?
  6. Modulation: How does internal state affect the nervous system?

Can anyone think of other broad questions in systems neuroscience? Should one of these not be here? Most other things I could think of belong here; for instance, “How do we deal with external and internal noise?” would probably be under Sensory or Learning. AYWNMBTTOF wrote a great post on what he considers the big questions of his field (taste) which I would subsume under Sensory.

I kind of hope this replaces the somewhat useless 23 Problems in Systems Neuroscience in terms of clarifying what we are studying.

8 thoughts on “Monday Open Thread: The Six Problems of Systems Neuroscience

  1. I like these… though I often think that “modulation” is a false category…just a dumping ground for any kind of signaling that is not textbook ephys. Most of what we call “modulatory” pathways are those that are likely evolutionarily much more ancient than canoncial neurotransmission, and they are often the defining signals of behavioral states. So who’s modulating who?

    Kind of like how “spontaneous” is any synaptic event caused by something other than an action potential. Result of particular history of discovery and tools at hand.

  2. Bigger question is not what the right questions are, but what constitutes an answer in systems neuroscience? In genetics, you want to know what the gene is that regulates something, you can get a concrete answer. What makes for a concrete answer in systems neuro?

    • I think in systems neuroscience, a concrete answer comes in a similar way to genetics. In genetics, if you can delete/downregulate/overexpress/etc a gene and see a change in phenotype, you’ve (somewhat) concretely answered that question, yes? In systems neuroscience you can do similar things through ablation of brain regions, blocking ion channels pharmacologically, or genetic manipulation of subclasses of neurons. It’s never 100% concrete just like in genetics (you don’t always know exactly where in the pathway it is), but you can often get a pretty good answer.

  3. Olfactory/pheromonal input represents the world and creates action via the chemical ecology of conserved molecular mechanisms that link the epigenetic landscape to the physical landscape of DNA in organized genomes of species from microbes to man by formation of nutrient-dependent hydrogen bonds that stabilize the thermodynamics of intercellular signaling, which is required for organism-level thermoregulation.

    Choices are naturally made among competing alternatives in changing environments in accord with the requirement for naturally selected nutrients that enable life to exist. Innate responses to odors allow organisms to learn what is beneficial — if their choices do not kill them first. Transgenerational epigenetic inheritance helps to ensure that the cell types of different organisms in different species come pre-programmed but that they can also be epigenetically altered if intercellular signaling and intermolecular interactions calculate the need for a different response in the endoplasmic reticulum.

    The internal state epigenetically effects the nervous system, which affects behavior. Thus, the question of affect must be examined after the difference between epigenetic effects and behavioral affects is addressed in the context of epigenetic imprinting on the internal state.

    • Perhaps a missing category is molecular changes? It does make you consider what counts as the ‘normal’ state of the circuit… I left out molecular pathways from the list because, traditionally, systems neuroscience has ignored them – though I don’t know if that will continue.

  4. I think perhaps these problems are a bit *too* broad. To me the number one problem of systems neuroscience is the “cortex problem”: is there a general principle of operation for cerebral cortex, and if so, what is it? I believe if we knew the basic principle of cortical computation, we would be able to move forward efficiently on a huge number of other problems.

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