John Maunsell. (Photography by Robert Kozloff)

Inquiring minds

Neuroscientist John Maunsell leads a new institute’s research into the mysteries of the brain.

From how the brain processes pain to why it becomes diseased to the origins of consciousness, questions remain about virtually all of its structures and functions. To begin to answer these questions, the University of Chicago has launched the Grossman Institute for Neuroscience, Quantitative Biology, and Human Behavior.

John Maunsell, editor in chief of the Journal of Neuroscience and a former Harvard University professor, came to UChicago in July as the institute’s founding director. In an interview with UChicago Medicine’s Science Life blog, edited and adapted below, Maunsell discusses the new frontiers of neuroscience.

Human behavior and the brain

In a very real sense all neuroscience is about human behavior. That includes not only experiments that directly measure the limits of human performance but also studies of the thousands of individual circuits and structures that make up the brain. This includes the nuts and bolts—the specialized molecules that make up brain cells and the genetics that support the brain’s development and its amazing capacity to learn throughout our lives.

Human behavior can be viewed as the ultimate challenge for neuroscience. We won’t understand the brain until we can explain how it allows us to reach, grasp, walk, and run gracefully. Standing up and walking seem simple and uninvolved, but it took you a year and a half of practicing every day before you could do them even moderately well. And after decades of effort, we still haven’t made robots that perform half as well as any toddler.

Human behavior also includes cognition. How do we make decisions or do mental calculations? Cognition might arise from computations similar to those used by the brain to control muscle actions, or it might require quite distinct mechanisms. Emotions, reward, fear, pain—all of these are critical to our social interactions and survival, but the mechanisms that generate those experiences are poorly understood.

More brain power

We’ve suddenly got so many powerful tools that we were only dreaming of 10 to 20 years ago. We’ve got new molecular and cellular methods that make it possible to identify and distinguish different classes of brain cells. We have multielectrode devices where you can record from hundreds or thousands of cells electrically. New optical methods sound almost like science fiction. By genetically engineering neurons to make fluorescent molecules, we can monitor the electrical activity of hundreds of brain cells at once by detecting the light they emit. Even more powerfully, we can focus light on them to change their electrical activity and look at how the animal’s behavior changes. And we can analyze the new data with computational approaches that were unimaginable just a short time ago.

Potential neuro knowledge

We are eventually going to understand the control of behavior. We’re going to understand emotion, and we’re going to understand mental disease, including devastating conditions such as schizophrenia, Alzheimer’s, depression, and other impairments that we have no mechanistic understanding of at the moment. Virtually everyone has someone in their extended family who is affected by mental disorders. These are terrible diseases that touch what a person is, but they’re not beyond our understanding.

Understanding the brain will have other far-reaching consequences. For example, on the computational side, there isn’t a facial recognition system today that does half as well as any human. It seems that recognizing a face should be a straightforward problem, but the human brain integrates sensory information in ways that we don’t yet fathom. Once we do, and then translate this understanding for computers and diagnostic systems and logical systems, it’s going to be transformational.

Even fields like law will be affected. A lot of what goes on in courts involves attempting to understand the mental state of someone who’s committed a crime. In civil cases, there’s a huge amount of focus on pain and suffering. These assessments seem subjective and squishy, but we’re talking about biological mechanisms that can be measured and understood in objective ways if we really know what we are dealing with.

The ultimate question

Learning how our perceptions, feelings, and ideas can emerge from the combined activity of billions of individual brain cells will profoundly advance our understanding of who we are. There’s an answer to the question of consciousness and it’s going to come from neuroscience, eventually.