The Value of the Connectome: Seung and Movshon Debate

Connectome debate imageFrom left to right: Movshon, Zimmer, Krulwich, and Seung.

Last night’s debate at Columbia University between neuroscientists Sebastian Seung and J. Anthony Movshon was billed as a heavyweight fight. In his welcoming address, in front of a packed house, Stuart Firestein referred to the participants as gladiators and the moderators as referees. And while he ended by saying “Let’s get ready to rumble!” the debate was rather temperate. The event, moderated by Carl Zimmer (Discover, The New York Times) and Robert Krulwich (NPR), was presented by NeuWrite and sponsored by the Dana Foundation.

Seung, professor of computational neuroscience at MIT and author of Connectome: How the Brain’s Wiring Makes Us Who We Are, argued in favor of mapping the human brain. Movshon, director of the Center for Neural Science at NYU and a Dana Alliance member, thinks resources would be better spent elsewhere.

Seung mentioned mental disorders, such as schizophrenia and autism, as reasons why a brain map would be useful. Researchers can’t find any neuron damage in people with the disorders, so it’s reasonable to assume the connections are faulty. By better understanding these connections, perhaps progress can be made towards treatment.

Movshon was quick to point out he was not the bad guy in the debate (which was important since his opponent was wearing gold sneakers). “I am not against acquiring knowledge,” Movshon said. He just wanted people to consider the task at hand: the brain has 80 billion cells connected in almost a hundred trillion ways. Brain mapping is a very slow process. In 100 years we still may not have a complete connectome. “The problem of grandeur is a problem in neuroscience,” Movshon said.

This comment troubled Seung. “There is not enough money or talent going towards technology that doesn’t have an immediate payoff. We are very short-sighted. The goal of simulating the brain is grandiose. The goal of understanding the brain, whatever that means, is grandiose. Hey, I just want to map some connections.”

And Movshon can accept that. In fact, they both agree that mapping the brain can be beneficial but that a disproportionate amount of time and money shouldn’t be designated towards doing so. Where they differ is that Seung is more confident that it’s a worthwhile endeavor, while Movshon isn’t convinced there is value in a connectome even if it were completed.

It may not have been the battle people expected, but as is the case with any good debate, those in attendance left pondering where they stand on the issue.

–Andrew Kahn

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