Neuroscience: the next generation

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b o o k r e v i e w
guide experiments and to interpret their results. In particular, the field
neuroscience: the next generation needs ideas that help to bridge across levels of investigation. Matteo
The Future of the Brain:
Carandini suggests that a bridge from circuit function to behavior could
Essays by the World's Leading
be constructed from basic computations that form repeated motifs across
different systems. Such theories, although they may be instantiated in
computational models, should not be judged on the details or scope of a
edited by Gary Marcus and Jeremy
particular simulation. Instead, the important outcome is their contribution
to understanding how different aspects of the brain work together: in other
words, their ability to simplify the brain's complexity. As Gil es Laurent
Princeton University Press, 2014
suggested in 2000, in this journal's first supplement, we wil know that
304 pp, hardcover, $24.95
neuroscience has made progress when the textbooks start slimming down.
ISBN: 9780691 162768
Another issue for experimental design is the accuracy of categories
used in neuroscience research. As Kevin Mitchell explains, psychiatric
Reviewed by Sandra Aamodt
diagnoses do not correspond well to particular genetic mutations,
even though these illnesses run in families. The same mutation can
A book called The Future of the Brain: Essays by the World's Leading be linked to schizophrenia in one person and to autism in another,
Neuroscientists cannot have modest ambitions. The editors and suggesting that current psychiatric diagnoses are not true biological
authors of this collection of essays do not disappoint on that score, categories. By averaging neural and behavioral data across patients with
rightsAll taking a broad, well-informed view of recent and potential advances thesamediagnosis,researchersmaybeobscuringimportantbiological
in neuroscience and their implications for the field. The time is right distinctions. Comparing phenotypes in people with the same mutation,
for such self-examination, as the availability of revolutionary new
he suggests, may be a more productive approach. Along similar lines,
techniques and approaches promises radical progress in understanding correctly sorting behaviors into appropriate cognitive categories is
the brain while also bringing some long-standing problems and crucial to uncovering their neural basis.
controversies into sharp relief.
For a book with such interesting content, it is unfortunate that
Much of the book focuses on the collection and analysis of big data. the editors did not put more effort into making the text inviting to
For now, those data come from techniques such as optical imaging nonspecialists. Although the authors take care to step back and fill in
in whole larval zebrafish brains with light-sheet microscopy, multi- background information, the writing style--laden with complicated
electrode recordings, and industrial-scale molecular biology and syntax, qualifiers and jargon--would be completely at home in an
anatomy. In the near future, the in situ DNA sequencing technique academic journal. Terms such as `microcolumn' and `line attractor',
recently developed by George Church may be used for cell-type among others, pass by without definition, and the brief glossary
identification and perhaps connection tracing. The authors discuss enlightens readers to only a small fraction of the jargon that will
examples ranging from completed projects (the Allen Brain Atlas) to puzzle outsiders. This approach is likely to limit the book's audience
those that are well under way (the Human Brain Project) to blue-sky to graduate students searching for a promising project to work on and
proposals such as `neural dust', an idea for building tiny, implanted, fellow researchers interested in reading outside their own area, along
long-term recording devices that would wirelessly transmit signals to with the occasional highly motivated undergraduate. Gary Marcus is
a receiver outside of the brain.
a talented writer who knows how to communicate with nonspecialists
The technical aspects of the projects are wel explained. Perhaps more and hold his readers' attention. I wish that he had helped all his
importantly, the authors evenhandedly explore the rationale behind contributors to do the same.
each project, what scientists can expect to learn and the conceptual
In the last chapter, Marcus and Christof Koch attempt to forecast the
limitations of the various approaches. These chapters leave little doubt next 50 years of neuroscience, under the guise of passing along a time-
that neuroscientists wil soon be in possession of a lot more information traveler's report from 2064. The authors pull no punches, anticipating
and more comprehensive data sets. It is less clear that the field is well that excessive hype about today's big-science projects will lead to
positioned to take advantage of them.
public disappointment and a decrease in funding for the field in the
One widely shared concern is that the coming tsunami of data may
2020s. They predict that neuroscience will solve the retina by 2020,
overcome neuroscientists' ability to make sense of it all. Conceptual
then dissect the principles of the cortex and finally comprehend the
progress is already lagging behind data collection, placing the field
visual thalamus. Further into the future, they speculate that nanobots
in danger of allowing the sorting and labeling of neurons and their injected into the body will cure or ameliorate many brain diseases and
properties to take precedence over the search for overarching principles later be applied to enhancing normal function, despite government
that underlie brain function (if indeed such principles exist).
restrictions intended to prevent such uses. Going back to the book in
To be useful, several contributors emphasize, these new data wil
a decade or two to see how these ideas have held up should be, as the
need to be accompanied by the development of better theories, both to
editors say, part of the fun.
nature neuroscience volume 17 | number 12 | DeCember 2014