Understanding the Brain

Coordinators: Vijay Balasubramanian, Michael J. Berry, William Bialek, Dmitri Chklovskii, Simon Laughlin, Andrew Schwartz, Jennie Si

One of the greatest challenges in science is the human brain. Indeed, even the brains of smaller and seemingly simpler animals are far from being "understood" in any meaningful sense of the word. One basic challenge is that we need to learn to read the "code"(or mathematical/statistical function relating neural activity and observable behavior) used by neurons to compute and transmit information. A related and even greater challenge is the question "Why is the neural code and neural computation organized in the way it is?" Tackling this problem of immense complexity calls for an inter-disciplinary effort combining approaches from biological and physical sciences. One fruitful approach has been to make a direct, if phenomenological, attack on the functions and mechanisms of the brain. Another important development has been the analysis of physical constraints on brain design and function: for example, biological computation must occur within a restricted space, with a limited amount of energy, and sufficiently quickly to be behaviorally relevant.

As in much of biology, there is no overarching theory of design and function of brains and so there is need to construct such a framework within which neural data can be interpreted and understood. With this in mind the workshop will consist of three parts. In the first month we will explore techniques for analyzing and reading neural codes. In the second month we will investigate the biophysical constraints and conditions that determine the nature and structure of neural information processing, as well as the hypothesis that neural computation is in some sense "optimized" given these constraints. These two months will feature intensive discussions and mini-workshops. The last month will be a more relaxed period in which long-term participants and others who come in this final period can work together towards to exploit the insights gained in the first two months of the workshop.