Monday Open Question: The unsolved problems of neuroscience?

Over at NeuroSkeptic, there was a post asking “what are the unsolved problems of neuroscience”? For those interested in this type of questions, there are more such questions here and here. This, obviously, is catnip to me.

Modeled on Hilbert’s famous 23 problems in mathematics, the list comes from Ralph Adolphs and has questions such as “how do circuits of neurons compute?” and “how could we cure psychiatric and neurological diseases?” For me, I found the meta-questions most interesting:

Meta-question 1: What counts as understanding the brain?

Meta-question 2: How can a brain be built?

Meta-question 3: What are the different ways of understanding the brain?

But the difference between the lists from Hilbert and Adolphs is very important: Hilbert asked precise questions. The Adolphs questions often verge on extreme ambiguity.

Mathematics has an advantage over biology in its precision. We (often) know what we don’t know. Is neuroscience even at that point? Or would it be more fruitful to propose a systematic research plan?

Me, I would aim my specific questions at something more basic and precise than most of those on the list. For the sake of argument, here are a couple possible questions:

  • Does the brain compute Bayesian probabilities, and if so how? (Pouget says yes, Marcus says no?)
  • How many equations are needed to model any given process in the nervous system?
  • How many distinct forms of long-term potentiation/depression exist?

So open question time:

What (specific) open question do you think is most important?

or What are some particularly fruitful research programs? I am thinking in relation to the Langlands program here.

4 thoughts on “Monday Open Question: The unsolved problems of neuroscience?

  1. I think the real issue is not so much the precision issue, but the ease with which one can ask pseudoquestions in neuroscience (or many other sciences). It is too easy to bake in premises that are required for the statement to be a question only to have those premises seen as nonsensical 5 years from now.

    An example that the ancients asked: “Does the soul live in the heart of the head?” or my favorite example from a philosopher of mind wandering into physics: “What shape is an electron?”. A less silly example would be the debate about if the “hard problem of consciousness” is actually a question or not.

    Technically, responses to the above can be made, but they aren’t really answers as much as “let me explain why you are silly” or a ridiculous redefinition of the terms “if by soul you actually meant…”.

    Of course, mathematics is not immune from this and can be lead into similar dead ends by questions that assume too much. The classic example comes from Hilbert, where the question wasn’t “Is there an algorithm that solves the Entscheidungsproblem?” but was “What is the algorithm that solves the Entscheidungsproblem?”. But somehow these math examples feel different.

    In short: I vote for research plans, not questions.

  2. Just a few off the top of my head: first, what do we even mean by computation in the context of the brain? Do psych words like attention have any mathematical meaning? How does network structure map to brain dynamics? How much about function can be predicted from structure, and vice versa? Do nervous systems carry out some weak form of logic? If so, what are its properties? Can the brain’s phase space be assigned an effective dimension? What are brain rhythms for, or what do they signify? What learning rules does the brain express, and where?

    Most of these questions just boil down to trying to understand the geometry of the brain’s phase space.

  3. Pingback: Science blogs: still kinda there, I guess | neuroecology

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