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“We know very little about the brain”: Experts outline challenges in neuroscience

psychology-544405_960_720The greatest challenge in the field of neuroscience, according to two experts, is that we still don’t understand the basics.

Around forty students, scientists, and community members recently gathered for the Stanford Chinese Family and Faculty Club's quarterly speaker series kickoff to learn more.

Neurobiologist Lu Chen, PhD, began by providing a general overview of the anatomy of the nervous system. Though we've made advances in neuroscience with improved imaging tools there's still a lot to learn, she said.

“We know very little about the brain. We know about connections, but we don’t know how information is processed," she said. Learning, for example, doesn’t just require good memory, but also depends on speed, creativity, attention, focus, and, most importantly, flexibility. Understanding exactly how the neural pathways function could lead to improved treatments for depression, genetic disease, and many other conditions, she explained.

Neuroscientist and Nobel Laureate Tom Südhof, MD, PhD, echoed those sentiments, telling the audience: “Medicine is a craft… It’s empirical, but we don’t know how to treat [problems]  if we don’t understand the disease and the underlying biology."

Mapping the components of the brain is far more complex than mapping the human genome, Südhof said. He encouraged researchers tackling big challenges to "stick with it," and he reminded the audience of the incremental nature of scientific discovery: "There is never a single discovery that changes science… Science works as a process that extends over decades.”

Südhof also urged researchers to focus on the basics of neuroscience before trying to understand abstract experiences of productivity and consciousness. “We are still in need of an understanding of the fundaments," he said.

The clear message from the talk was that taking one step back may be the best way to crack some of the brain's remaining mysteries.

Previously: The lure of research: How Nobel winner Thomas Südhof came to work in the basic sciencesFor award-winning scientist, a finished experiment is like a piece of completed art and Neuroscience camp: Teens learn about mental health
Photo by John Hain

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