Neuroscience is a buzzword. Which is unfortunate. Trainers and consultants in the internet wilderness are eager to throw it around and slap it next to short-lived trendy terms, with little added value to show for it. Just think of your favorite elearning term and look up “the neuroscience of” it. Most of the time you will come across biased, simplistic, fake, or worse, outdated info. So we thought we would try to save you time and take you directly where it counts. Here is our check of real progress made by academic research, so hopefully you can get up to speed on the science.
It was an amazing decade for the research on the brain… of mice
A bit of a disclaimer might be warranted. A lot of the more impressive research, leading to flashy headlines, is the result of lab experimentation not done on humans. Naturally, there is a lot to be wary about, but also to acknowledge here. And don’t feel bad for these furry martyrs of science alone. All kinds of animals, from Drosophila to cows, routinely play a role in our quest for inner truth.
So just keep your whiskers on high alert for every headline. And for good measure (and fun), follow @justsaysinmice.
2013: Any post-Hebbianists our there?
It sounds sensible: Increased synaptic activity associated with a learning task generates persistent stimulation, and eventually synaptic efficacy, therefore outlining, if by broad strokes, the dynamics of brain plasticity. Do you have a better theory? It took 64 years for anybody to cross the chasm and point out the flaws of the 1949 Hebbian theory of neuroplasticity. In terms of an information processing perspective, synaptic activity does not eventually nor unmistakable lead to cognitive efficiencies and increased plasticity in every domain. So our first milestone of the decade is not a thing we know that we didn’t before, but something we thought we knew, but now we know better. George Bernard Shaw would be proud. Annual Review of Psychology.
2013: They put memories on a mouse
Optogenetic manipulation –that is, modifying and controlling cells directly through applied light– was successful at interfering with “internally generated stimuli” which, in association with real-time external stimuli, triggers learned responses. At a high level, we can see this as the mechanics of memory. While the process opens the door for encoding all kinds of imagery about past experiences into the brain, a more clear and present way to use this process for building “false” memories is as a conditioning technique. Then the brain will fill out the blanks. Science.
2015: We got a millimeter further in our understanding of sleep
We still don’t understand sleep. But we have amazing theories trying to justify why it’s so important. Volumes of dopamine hormone on the brain were, before the decade, known to correlate with plasticity, or the brain’s ability to adjust its own structure to optimize its response to a given context. Now, the regulatory power of dopamine appears to be modifiable. Sleep in particular plays a role in “optimizing” dopamine, by localizing its effects. As a result, depending on its location, sleep can promote memory as well as forgetting –an equally important skill if you ask me— during sleep. Cell.
2016: Is nothing synaptic anymore?
If the Hebbian school of thought is about to be put to pasture (it’s not), then we have to admit it: Learning is not quantifiable. At least not in synaptic volume or efficiency values. And as the consensus grows larger, so does a new avenue of questions opening a whole new perspective for the discipline. If not the synapsis, what is the fundamental unit of study of neuroscience? If no two synapses are alike, what is it within them that makes them different? Before you find yourself reaching out for the cloud of unknowing, take this quote to heart: “Memory persists despite synapses having been destroyed. Synapses are turning over at very high rates even when nothing is being learned.” Frontiers in Systems Neuroscience.
2017: The neuroscience of learning starts at the spinal cord
It’s been said that part of what makes octopi so smart is their distributed brain, where information can be at least partially processed in the tentacles. Well us mammals might not have such multidimensional dexterity, but information entering the brain through the spinal cord appears to have faced some amount of processing beforehand. A poignant illustration came with the discovery of the RORbeta (RORβ) “interneurons,” located throughout the vertebrae, which modulate the amount of information that flows upstream. With a notable density of sensory receptors, these interneurons are involved in at least a basic pre-processing of signals, necessary for mechanosensory processes. Scientist argue this prevents information overload in the brain, and could play a role in issues related to over-sensitivity and pain. Neuron.