Last month Gary Marcus spoke up about bad neuroscience reporting in the New Yorker. Whenever someone asks me about the brain, I often comment that it’s complex. I mean there are over 1 billion neurons…how these neurons develop and form connections is still being studied under different levels of analysis. There are intricate feedback loops between different brain regions and the timing or firing rate of a neurotransmitter can be crucial. Even researchers like Sebastian Seung from MIT can humbly acknowledge the complexity of how the brain works. (see video)
Seung’s lab is developing a game that engages users to map 3D structures of neurons to help scientists further their understanding of how the brain’s wiring (connectome) leads to higher-level functions. Winners of the citizen science game will have neuron naming rights. This is unlike the research often reported in popular media, which tends to fascinate a broad audience with emphasis on over-simplification or generalizations of fMRI data (not individual neurons). As Marcus pointed out:
The smallest element of a brain image that an fMRI can pick out is something called a voxel. But voxels are much larger than neurons, and, in the long run, the best way to understand the brain is probably not by asking which particular voxels are most active in a given process. It will instead come from asking how the many neurons work together within those voxels. And for that, fMRI may turn out not to be the best technique, despite its current convenience.
There is much to be discovered about the brain and cognitive function, including the methods being used to study them. It’s no surprise that this excitement has become part of the “brain porn” hype. Like Marcus said, “Neuroscience has yet find its Newton, let alone its Einstein.”