#CCNeuro asks: “How can we find out how the brain works?”

The organizers of the upcoming conference Cognitive Computational Neuroscience (#CCNeuro) have done a very cool thing ahead of the meeting. They asked their keynote speakers the same set of 5 questions, and posted their responses on the conference blog.

The first of these questions is “How can we find out how the brain works?”. In addition to recommending reading the insightful responses of the speakers, I offer here my own unsolicited suggestion.

A common theme among the responses is the difficulty posed by the complexity of the brain and the extraordinary expanse of scales across which it is organized.

The most direct approach to this challenge may be to focus on the development of recording technologies to measure neural activity that more and more densely span the scales until ultimately the entire set of neural connections and synaptic weights is known. At that point the system would be known but not understood.

In the machine learning world, this condition (known but not understood) is just upon us with AlphaGo and other deep networks. While it has not been proven that AlphaGo works like a brain, it seems close enough that it would be silly not to use as a testbed for any theory that tries to penetrate the complexity of the brain a system that has human level performance in a complex task, is perfectly and noiselessly known, and was designed to learn specifically because we could not make it successful by programming it to execute known algorithms (contrast Watson).

Perhaps the most typical conceptual approach to understanding the brain is based on the idea (hope) that the brain is modular in some fashion, and that models of lower scale objects such as cortical columns may encapsulate their function with sufficiently few parameters that the models can be built up hierarchically and arrive at a global model whose complexity is in some way still humanly understandable, whatever that means.

I think that modularity, or something effectively like modularity is necessary in order to distill understanding from the complexity. However, the ‘modularity’ that must be exploited in understanding the brain will likely need to be at a higher level of abstraction than spatially contiguous structures such as columns, built up into larger structures. The idea of brain networks that can be overlapping is already such an abstraction, but considering the density of long range connections witnessed by the volume of our white matter, the distributed nature of representations, and the intricate coding that occurs at the individual neuron level, it is likely that the concept of overlapping networks will be necessary all the way down to the neuron, and that the brain is like an extremely fine sparse sieve of information flow, with structure at all levels, rather than a finite set of building blocks with countable interactions.

The Wearable Tech + Digital Health Conference at Stanford University

The future of healthcare both small and big. It’s big data, machine learning, and massive amounts of data coming from tiny robust devices or phone apps of individuals. It’s individualized medicine – not only for patients who need care but for healthy individuals. The data will come from devices that will become ever more ubiquitous – stickers on skin, tattoos, clothing, contact lenses, and more.  This conference, organized by Applysci, and held on Feb 7 and 8, 2017 at Stanford University, involved a slate of some of the most creative, ambitious, and successful people in the digital health industry. I was both mesmerized and inspired. 

I decided to venture outside my comfort zone of fMRI and brain imaging conferences to get a glimpse of the future of wearable technology and digital health by attending this conference. The speakers were mostly academics who have started companies related to their particular area of expertise. Others were solidly in industry or government. Some were quite famous and others were just getting started. All were great communicators – many having night jobs as writers. My goal for being here was to see how these innovations could complement fMRI – or vise versa.  Were there new directions to go, strategies to consider, or experiments to try? What were the neural correlates of expanding one’s “umwelt?” – a fascinating concept elegantly described by one of the speakers, David Engleman.   

On a personal level, I just love this stuff. I feel that use of the right data can truly provide insight into so many aspects of an individual’s health, fitness, and overall well-being, and can be used for prediction and classification. There’s so much untapped data that can be measured and understood on an individual level.  

Many talks were focussed on flexible, pliable, wearable, and implantable devices that can measure, among other things, hemodynamics, neuronal activity, sweat content, sweat rate, body heat, solar radiation, body motion, heart rate, heart rate variability, skin conductance, blood pressure, electrocardiogram measures, then communicate this to the user and the cloud – all for analysis, feedback, and diagnosis. Other talks were on the next generation of brain analysis and imaging techniques. Others focussed on brain computer interfaces to allow for wired and wireless prosthetic interfacing. Frankly, the talks at this conference were almost all stunning. The prevailing theme that ran through each talk could be summarized as: In five or so years, not much will happen, but in ten to fifteen years, brace yourselves. The world will change! Technophiles see this future as a huge leap forward – as information will be more accessible and usable – reducing the cost of healthcare and, in some contexts – bypassing clinicians altogether and increasing the well-being of a very large fraction of the population. Others may see a dystopia wrought with the inevitable ethical issues of who can use and control the data.   

Below are abbreviated notes, highlights, and personal thoughts from each of the talks that I attended. I don’t talk about the speakers themselves as they are easily googled – and most are more or less famous. I focus simply on what the highlights were for me. 

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