Intelligent Machines

Three Grand Challenges for Brain Science That Can Be Solved in 10 Years

Neuroscientists have formulated a list of the great outstanding problems in brain science that can be solved in the near future.

One of the great scientific challenges is to understand the human brain. Research teams around the world are gathering data at breakneck speed on everything from the brain’s connectome and the way it computes to the nature of brain disease and how it can be better diagnosed and treated.

And yet bringing together this work in a way that produces achievable goals is still a problem. So later this month the international brain science community will sit down in New York to work out how to coordinate its work on important common goals.  

But exactly what these goals should be, nobody knows. So an important outstanding question is: what grand challenges should brain scientists focus on?

Today, we get an answer thanks to a brainstorming session held earlier this year by many of the world’s most influential neuroscientists. They’ve now published their conclusions and say they have identified three grand challenges that are achievable in the next 10 years and so should become the focus of the global neuroscience community.

The first grand challenge seeks to understand what makes brains unique. Neuroscientists have long known that brain structure varies hugely both within and across species. The variations appear in the anatomy of brains—their biochemistry and connectivity as well as in the way they develop and the gene expression involved in this process.  

“Understanding the design principles governing variability may hold the key to understanding intelligence and subjective experience, as well as the influence of variability on health and function,” says the brainstorming team.

So the grand challenge they propose is to map these variations across a wide range of species, an exercise they call anatomical neurocartography. “Within a decade, we expect to have addressed this challenge in brains including but not limited to Drosophila, Zebrafish, Mouse, and Marmoset, and to have developed tools to conduct massive neurocartographic analyses,” they say. “The result will be a state­-of­-the-­art ‘Virtual NeuroZoo’ with fully annotated data and analytic tools for analysis and discovery.”

The second grand challenge is to find out how the brain solves the complex computational problems of life, such as crossing difficult terrain, translating languages, and recognizing emotional states. That’s a longstanding conundrum. While the world’s most powerful computers struggle with these tasks despite mind-boggling processing power and megawatts of power, the brain does all this on little more than a bowl of porridge each day.

How does the brain manage this? To find out, the brainstormers propose studying how different brain components work together to orchestrate complex behavior. This will require a new generation of experiments to do this in natural environments. And it will require coordinated efforts to study these brain mechanisms on different scales so different teams will have to work closely to coordinate their work. “These experiments will produce multiscale models of neural systems with the potential to accomplish computational tasks that no current computer system can perform,” says the team.

The final challenge is how to use all this information to help diagnose and prevent brain disease and to restore function when brains become damaged. Much of this work will focus on better understanding how neural function can go wrong. But this improved knowledge will also need to be translated into tools that will improve clinical decision making.

There is another goal that the team has set for the world’s neuroscience community. This is to create the technological infrastructure for collaborations that work on a global scale. This infrastructure will be known as the International Brain Station, in homage to the International Space Station, which the group professes to admire. The International Brain Station is essentially a cloud computing project that will allow researchers to collect, store, and analyze data in a way that is accessible to all.

All this sounds hugely ambitious, but there are a number of missing details. One of these is the role of the Europe’s Human Brain Project, which is currently funded to the tune of €1 billion. Is the International Brain Station a competitor to this project, an extension, or some kind of corollary?

And what of the cost of the International Brain Station? The brainstormers make no mention of how much their endeavor is likely to cost nor who might pay for it (although their meeting was supported by the National Science Foundation and the Kavli Foundation).

In this regard, the International Space Station may not be the best example to aspire to. The space station cost upward of $150 billion and is by some margin the world’s most expensive machine.

Perhaps those issues have been deliberately left for the “Coordinating Global Brain Projects” meeting that will take place in New York on September 19.

One thing this report has in its favor is the pedigree of the scientists who have contributed. These include Story Landis, former director of the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke at the National Institutes of Health; Winfried Denk, director of the Max Planck Institute of Neurobiology; Hollis Cline, professor of neuroscience at the Scripps Research Institute; and George Church, a geneticist at Harvard University.  

It’ll be fascinating to find out whether the rest of the global brain sciences community agrees.

Ref: arxiv.org/abs/1608.06548: Grand Challenges for Global Brain Sciences

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