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Deciphering "three pounds of goo" with Stanford neurobiologist Bill Newsome

Thursday means it's time for Biomed Bites, a weekly feature that highlights some of Stanford's most compelling research and introduces readers to innovative scientists from a variety of disciplines. If you aren't hooked on this series yet, you will be after hearing from this neuroscientist.

Stanford neurobiologist Bill Newsome, PhD, doesn't invent new drugs, develop creative treatments or diagnose mysterious afflictions. He mostly uses moving dots to study vision. So it makes sense that even Newsome's own mother asks the point of his research.

Newsome, who directs the Stanford Neuroscience Institute, fields the question with grace in the video above:

I  am interested in the brain as a biological organ that gives rise to intelligence. We study vision because we believe it's going to give us certain cues how the brain actually works and understanding the mechanisms by which the brain produces behavior will help us understand all kinds of diseases of the brain… how thought and decision-making and memory and attention go wrong in diseases like schizophrenia, in diseases like depression.

It's not about the dots. It's about deciphering the brain, which Newsome calls "three pounds of goo" by gesturing toward his own goo-container. (It's a well-known goo-container: Newsome also co-chairs the federal BRAIN Initiative). How does what you see influence what you do? What you think? What you don't see?

Newsome has spent more than 40 years poking around in the brain and he knows it works much better than any of our most advanced attempts to replicate it. Think of all the applications for a machine that can not only see, but can also make decisions based on what it spots. But now, Newsome says, the best artificial intelligence vision systems are only as perceptive as a fly or an ant.

The notion is that if we can understand how real biological vision works, we can build artificial intelligence systems that can do vision much, much better than our current ones can… and we can improve our lives in many ways.

Basic bio it is, and basically very important.

Learn more about Stanford Medicine’s Biomedical Innovation Initiative and about other faculty leaders who are driving forward biomedical innovation here.

Previously: Even old brains can stay healthy, says Stanford neurologist, Marked improvement in transplant success on the way, says Stanford immunologist and Discover the rhythms of life with a Stanford biologist

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