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Barriers in Neuroscience?

Stephan Anagnostaras stephan at psych.ucla.edu
Mon Jun 26 01:20:56 EST 1995

In article <3skjjs$f1l at newsbf02.news.aol.com>, sethbh at aol.com (Seth BH) wrote:

> The primary architects of barriers to understanding mind and brain and
> behavior is not the insolubility of biological or psychological problems,
> but rather barriers of creativity among investigators.  For example,
> humans have been systematically investigating functional neuroscience for
> over a century -- and here at the doorway to the 21st century, we are
> still opening holes in animals heads and sticking pieces of metal in,
> hoping to elucidate how the mind works.  An 1877 phsyiology text (Fosters
> Physiology) elucidates the state of the art of neuroscience in the late
> nineteenth century, and quite frankly, aside frm the lack of pretty
> pictures, 80 percent of it could be taught in a current neuroanatomy
> course.

This is hogwash; at that time, wasn't the reticular account of the
brain the dominant theory?  Given this account, it would be hard
to create a neurophysiology.

> The current focus on molecular techniques has moved such investigations
> into a cul-de-sac from which we may not recover for 25-30 years. 
> Molecular science is a fascinating endeavour, but it has become a
> philosophy rather than a set of tools for parsing out larger issues.  When
> entire departments can be devoted to investigating subsets of LTP/LTD
> phenomenon and blithely speak of it as the basis of learning and memory,
> whereas there have been NO studies which show that LTP is anything other
> than an endogenous characteristic of cortical neuronal response

Although I agree with your basic premise about purely reductionistic approaches
to neuroscience, your statements about LTP are quite exaggerated.  There
is considerable evidence linking LTP to learning, enough to call it
marginally compelling.  However, it is true that there is too much
work being done examing LTP per se, rather than checking the basic tenet
that it is one type of synaptic plasticity that mediates learning. 

Likewise, however, the alternative approach, that one apply something
like behavioral neuroscience is also quite flawed, as many of the
theoretical constructs developed even in scientific psychology are
invalid as "brain" constructs. 

So my conclusion is that all of the approaches are quite flawed, e.g.,
taking old top-down theories and applying them to neuroscience (behavioral
neuroscience), pure bottom up theories (neurobiology/physiological science),
as well as most attempts to create new top-down approaches (e.g., computational
neuroscience).  However, all of these approaches have merits and are
offering considerable new findings to the field, although from different
approaches.   So I'm somewhat critical of you harping on an approach
because it is flawed, since you are not really offering an alternative
(if you did, Im sure I could point out why it is also flawed).

> characteristics, we are following the SPT (somebody's pet theory)
> modality, which guarantees that science will follow the pathways of those
> who can work politics and funding agencies to their whim rather than those
> who are willing to try new and untested techniques or theories.  
> Until those who are willing to try the new and untested (and possibly
> unproductive) theories and techniques are given at least a modicum of
> oportunity to pursue their work, I fear that neuro (and other) science
> will become little more than yet another unproductive and paper-laden arm
> of bureaucracy.  

Finally, the notion that we are not trying to test new and untested theories
is flatly absurd.  That is all we do, especially in the field of learning
and memory.  LTP is an example of a type of synpatic plasticity that survived
a flew years as a plausible mechanism; there are many others that didn't.



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