To crack the code of the brain,… two fundamental problems must be solved.
The first is: “How does the machine work, starting with its building blocks, cell types, going through their physiology and anatomy,” he said. That means knowing all the different types of neurons in the mouse visual cortex and their function — information that science doesn’t have yet.
It also means knowing what code is used to pass on information. When a mouse sees a picture, how is that picture encoded and passed from neuron to neuron? That is called neural computation.
“The other highly related problem is: How does that neural computation create behavior?” he said. How does the mouse brain decide on action based on that input?He imagined the kind of experiment that would get at these deep questions. A mouse might be trained to participate in an experiment now done with primates in which an animal looks at an image. Later, seeing several different images in sequence, the animal presses a lever when the original one appears. Seeing the image, remembering it, recognizing it and pressing the lever might take as long as two seconds and involve activity in several parts of the brain.
Understanding those two seconds, Dr. Reid said, would mean knowing “literally what photons hit the retina, what information does the retina send to the thalamus and the cortex, what computations do the neurons in the cortex do and how do they do it, how does that level of processing get sent up to a memory center and hold the trace of that picture over one or two seconds.”
Then, when the same picture is seen a second time, “the hard part happens,” he said. “How does the decision get made to say, ‘That’s the one’?”
In pursuit of this level of understanding, Dr. Reid and others are gathering chemical, electrical, genetic and other information about what the structure of that part of the mouse brain is and what activity is going on.
Dr. Reid says solving the first part of the problem — receiving and analyzing sensory information — might be done in 10 years. An engineer’s precise understanding of everything from photons to action could be more on the order of 20 to 30 years away, and not reachable through the work of the Allen Institute alone. But, he wrote in an email, “the large-scale, coordinated efforts at the institute will get us there faster.” He is studying only one part of one animal’s brain, but, he said, the cortex — the part of the mammalian brain where all this calculation goes on — is something of a general purpose computer. So the rules for one process could explain other processes, like hearing. And the rules for decision-making could apply to many more complicated situations in more complicated brains. Perhaps the mouse visual cortex can be a kind of Rosetta stone for the brain’s code.