By: Ezra Brand  | 

YU Neuroscience Societies Host Speaker

The human brain is a most fascinating object. It is the organ which is the seat of thought, and what makes us truly human. It seems only appropriate that it is so massively complicated, and we seem to be so far from a truly comprehensive understanding of it. The study of the brain - neuroscience - is a fascinating field which has the potential for amazing discoveries change how we understand ourselves.

In many respects, the computer occupies a similar place in society’s collective thought. The parallels, as well as the dissimilarities, between the brain and the computer have been made since the early days of computing. The similarities are both clear and exciting: Both are tremendously powerful, calculating, objects, making many calculations per second. The fastest super-computer has not yet reached the calculating speed of the brain. (A caveat: it is difficult to measure these things, and in any case supercomputers are very close to outperforming the brain.)

The computer in its many forms, colloquially generally referred to under the somewhat-vague term “tech,” is increasingly in the news, as is the brain. Indeed, one recent entry in a Washington Post blog began: “Neuroscience is appearing everywhere.” The Nasdaq, which is weighted toward technology stocks, has reached unprecedented heights, and Apple, the technology behemoth, is now the most valuable company in history. The need for computer programming talent is voracious and only growing. Technology has reached every part of our lives, a fact which does not need to be stressed.

It is only appropriate, then, that there is a scientific field devoted to computational modelling of the brain, called “computational neuroscience.” This is different than the field of Artificial Intelligence (AI), although there is, as there should be, collaboration between the fields. AI is the attempt to create an artificial “mind” on the same level of intelligence as humans, while computational neuroscience simply attempts to describe the brain as it is. While not connected to computers per se, it attempts to make use of mathematical algorithms to model the brain’s method of processing information, in a similar way that computers use algorithm to process data.

In February, Josh Merel from the Computational Neuroscience team at Columbia University came to speak in YU. The event was sponsored by the Neuroscience Societies at YC and Stern and a couple other science clubs. While YC does not, unfortunately, offer a major in neuroscience - Stern does offer such a major, though it is technically a major in psychology/biology with a concentration in neuroscience - there are many students who are interested in neuroscience, and the Neuroscience Society attempts to satisfy that curiosity. (A former co-president of the Neuroscience Club, Donny Rhodes, recently left for the neuroscientifically greener pastures of Penn, where a major in neuroscience is offered.)

Merel is the second lecturer from Columbia to come and speak this semester. According to Dovi Muller, president of the Neuroscience Society at YC, the Neuroscience Society had finalized this semester a collaboration with Columbia University’s Neuroscience Group to establish a lecture series in YU. Advanced doctoral students from Columbia’s world-famous PhD program are delivering talks to YU’s undergraduate community on a wide range of topics within neuroscience. PhD candidate Cyndel Vollmer’s presentation much more general overview of neuroscience just a few weeks before Merel’s visit was first, did not focus on any specific area of research.

Merel came to speak under the auspices of Columbia’s program to popularize cutting-edge neuroscience. There was a nice-size crowd—around twenty people—despite the fact that other popular events were happening at the same time. Some more advance students of neuroscience were in attendance, including YU’s own Dr. Norman Adler, who is recognized as one of the founding fathers of Behavioral Neuroscience as an independent field of research and has mentored many students in YU interested in neuroscience, as well as Zevi Muller, the club president’s brother, who is a junior colleague of Merel’s.

After introductions by Dr. Adler and Zevi Muller, Merel discussed what computational neuroscience is in general, followed by more complex issues and his own work. He explained that computational neuroscience is a kind of theoretical neuroscience, which creates models to help make sense of data produced by research on the brain. This helps sharpen the ideas presented by experiments, and facilitates more sophisticated experiments. Merel then began to enumerate why we bother to study neuroscience, and took care to lay it out in a systematic way. He broke it down into three main reasons: To cure medical issues (such as Alzheimer’s, sleep issues, etc.); to understand the nature of intelligence; and for philosophical reasons (understanding the mind and consciousness). The various subspecialties of contemporary neuroscience research were enumerated as well, as well as common methods of research. This overview was a nice segue from Cyndell’s overview from the previous lecture in the series.

Merel then went on to discuss many other aspects of neuroscience research, such as the work that won the most recent Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine, “for their discoveries of cells that constitute a positioning system in the brain.” Among other things, he told a fascinating story about a computational neuroscientist who was trying to create a mathematical model, but the current state of math did not seem to be able to model the data that he had. Terence Tau, a mathematical prodigy who is currently a professor in UCLA, was able to assist him by creating new mathematical models. Tau then wrote about it in his popular math blog.

Merel clearly displayed his fantastic grasp of both neuroscience in general and of his specialty. However, many felt that the presentation lacked background and some concrete examples. Still, all in all, it was another successful event for the Neuroscience Societies of YU, as it certainly conveyed some of the excitement in working at the cutting edge of a field that lies at the very heart of what it means to be human.