How a Periodic Table of Brains Could Revolutionize Neuroscience

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How a Periodic Table of Brains Could Revolutionize Neuroscience

Ryan F. Mandelbaum

Quote:Dölen compared present-day neuroscience to “somewhere between the ancient Greek’s recognition of four elements and the medieval alchemists trying to change lead into gold.”

Does that sound like hyperbole? Well, consider that neuroscientists can’t even agree on the brain’s most basic information-carrying unit. Perhaps it’s the average electrical field, or maybe it’s action potentials—the electrical output of single brain cells, or neurons. Maybe it’s the combined electrical activity that neurons collect from the other neurons, which they use to determine whether to fire or not. Or maybe its chemicals inside the cells. All of these ideas require different kinds of measurement, like blood-flow monitoring fMRI machines, action potential-detecting electrodes, voltage sensors for measuring the electrical activity before a neuron fires, and protein-detecting systems. Then there’s the blossoming field of genetics, which is also helping determine how the brain might work.

But perhaps each of these different measurements are just part of the many properties that brains have that must be catalogued. They’re equivalent to properties like whether an element is a solid or gas at room temperature, how much energy the atom needs to lose an electron, its radius, atomic weight, and configuration of electrons. But there are many kinds of brains out there. “Right now, our focus on just 5 species (humans, mice, fish, flies, and worms) really limits our ability to see the patterns,” she said. “It’s as if you were trying to figure out the organization of the periodic table by just looking at hydrogen, carbon, helium, oxygen, and gold.”
'Historically, we may regard materialism as a system of dogma set up to combat orthodox dogma...Accordingly we find that, as ancient orthodoxies disintegrate, materialism more and more gives way to scepticism.'

- Bertrand Russell

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