Janelia Farm, the research center the Howard Hughes Medical Institute recently announced their upcoming research focuses. One of them was controversial: mechanistic cognitive neuroscience. Here’s what they had to say about it:
How does the brain enable cognition? We are developing an integrated program in which tool-builders, biologists, and theorists collaborate to clear the technical, conceptual, and computational hurdles that have kept the most intriguing aspects of cognition beyond the purview of mechanistic investigation. The program will establish tight links across our existing genetic model systems —flies, fish, and rodents— and exploit their complementary strengths. We aim to make the fly the benchmark for reductionist explanations of neural processes underlying complex behavior, leveraging conceptual research by mammalian neuroscientists. The fly has strong potential as a model for rapid mechanistic insights, due to its small brain size, the likelihood of obtaining a complete wiring diagram of its brain, and increasingly powerful methods for measuring and manipulating genetically defined populations of cells in behaving animals. We expect this research to reveal strategies for better understanding the more sophisticated neural and behavioral features of vertebrates. In turn, we expect our vertebrate research to expose complex computational mechanisms, some of which we can study at a detailed level in the fly.
Why was this so controversial? This sentence: “In turn, we expect our vertebrate research to expose complex computational mechanisms, some of which we can study at a detailed level in the fly“. Yes, the humble fly may or may not have cognitive states.
What are some cognitive behaviors that a fly can perform? They use reinforcement learning, can attend to things, have visual place memory. Other invertebrates can recognize faces and perform complex path integration. On the other hand, they have very poor linguistic abilities.
It’s a truth of biology that theories rarely survive contact with new types of data. There is a kind of clarity from knowing the exact neural circuitry and dynamics that a minimal neural circuit needs. If I were studying, say, attention in primates I would be interested in the precise mechanisms that another species uses to accomplish a task similar to what I’m studying. There’s no guarantee that it will be the same mechanism – but is it so unreasonable? Is there a reason that insects would not display cognitive behavior?