Neural Dynamics of Neurological Disease
Neural Dynamics of Neurological Disease
" Babylon in all its desolation is a sight not so awful as that of the human mind in ruins ."
Scrope Berdmore Davies 1
" I can face death, but I cannot face watching myself disappear from within...I don't know who I am anymore ."
Claude Jutra 2
Each annual meeting of the Society for Neuroscience (SfN) is, for me, once more a reminder just how reductionist the field of neuroscience has been, continues to be, and apparently is destined to remain.
Anyone who has gone to this conference, or any similar type of large meeting, cannot help but be overwhelmed by the sheer quantity of the information on display. During the three and a half days of the main SfN meeting, some 30 000 participants will present over 15 000 posters along with almost 13 000 talks of various lengths. These numbers were the projected figures for the 2014 conference in Washington, DC, but other SfN conferences of the recent past will have been much the same in size. Future conferences will likely be even larger.
Most of the talks at the meeting occur in the so-called "mini"- and "nano"-symposia which feature 15-minute-long presentations, each usually containing a small body of data and its preliminary interpretation. However, the poster sessions really show the true dimensions of the conference: seven 4-hour-long sessions, each filling an area the size of several football fields.
Each poster, or mini-talk, contains a snippet of information - almost all of it, as noted, preliminary - a lot of which will turn out to be conceptually flawed in design or experimentally incorrect. Much of the time, as the lack of later publications bears out, the work is simply not reproducible. This outcome is in accord with studies by various scholars who have noted a lack of reproducibility in experimental data of all kinds, perhaps particularly often in the biomedical sciences.
Multiply these numbers by the additional numbers of people and presentations at conferences in neurology or more specialist neurological diseases, multiply again by the number of years these conferences have all been going on, and one likely gets billions of words and millions of tons of paper in a virtual tidal wave of information, which, combined with endless time spent by a great variety of otherwise quite talented scientists, actually produces what, at the end of the day, amounts to relatively little useful information about neurological diseases. Further, very little of this information is actually sorted, compiled, or cross-checked internally or externally with the previous decades of results from all of the similar meetings.
What then are the outcomes for neurological disease remediation? First, the field still does not understand the etiology of most neurological diseases, and, as a consequence, it has only a very limited means of translating what it thinks it knows into treatments that actually halt the progression of - never mind "cure" - these diseases.
The problem here is therefore obviously not one of quantity, or even in many cases of quality. Rather, the problem is that the field still cannot answer some really fundamental questions about the diseases in question and therefore cannot come up with treatments that make a lot of sense mechanistically or, at the very least, do what they are intended to do. Maybe what this really means is that the field of neurological disease research is not asking the right questions, or that it does not know how to interpret the answers.
For me, the question is not how to (over) simplify the nervous system and its diseases, but rather how to understand them in their entirety. Admittedly, the task of understanding the former has proven quite difficult. The second goal clearly depends on accomplishing the first.
As other authors have pointed out in different contexts, attempts to "atomitize" a subject of study into ever smaller b