Grand Challenges of Neuroscience: Day 1

Following up on MC's posts about the significant insights in the history of neuroscience, I'll now take Neurevolution for a short jaunt into neuroscience's potential future.

In light of recent advances in technologies and methodologies applicable to neuroscience research, the National Science Foundation last summer released a document on the "Grand Challenges of Neuroscience".  These grand challenges were identified by a committee of leading members of the cognitive neuroscience community.

The document, available at, describes six domains of research the committee deemed to be important for progress in understanding the relationship between mind and brain.

Over the next few posts, I will discuss each of the research domains and explain in layperson's terms why these questions are interesting and worth pursuing.  I'll also describe potential experimental approaches to address these questions in a cognitive neuroscience framework.

Topic 1:  "Adaptive Plasticity"

One research topic brought up by the committee was that of adaptive plasticity.  In this context, plasticity refers to the idea that the connections in the brain, and the behavior governed by the brain, can be changed through experience and learning.  

Learning allows us to adapt to new circumstances and environments.  Arguably, understanding how we learn and how to improve learning could be one of the greatest contributions of neuroscience.

Although it is widely believed that memory is based on the synaptic changes that occur during long-term potentiation and long-term depression (see our earlier post) this has not been conclusively shown!

What has been shown is that drugs that prevent synaptic changes also prevent learning.  However, that finding only demonstrates a correlation between synaptic change and memory formation,  not causation. (For example, it is possible that those drugs are interfering with some other process that truly underlies memory.)

The overarching question the committee raises is: What are the rules and principles of neural plasticity that implement [the] diverse forms of memory?

This question aims to quantify the exact relationships between changes at the neuronal level and at the level of behavior.  For instance, do rapid changes at the synapse reflect rapid learning?  And, how do the physical limitations on the changes at the neuronal level relate to cognitive limitations at the behavioral level?

My personal opinion is that the answers to these questions will be obtained through new experiments that either implant new memories or alter existing ones (e.g., through electrical stimulation protocols). 

There is every indication that experimenters will soon be able to select and stimulate particular cells in an awake, behaving animal to alter the strength of the connection between those cells.  The experimenters can then test the behavior of the animals to see if their memory for the association that might be represented by that connection has been altered.


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