Unsolved Problems in Neuroscience and Directions for Future Research.

Unsolved Problems in Neuroscience and Directions for Future Research.

Within neuroscience there are problems that are nearly solved whilst other  solutions remain decades away. Problems such as developing a full understanding of the neurological processes that underpin psychiatric conditions may only be solved once we are able to create a whole-brain microscopic-resolution image of the human brain. To put this into perspective the brain of a mouse contains some 70,000,000 neurons whilst the human brain contains 80,000,000,000 neurons.


To solve some problems we may have to rethink our methods of neuroscientific research. This lends the question of whether correlational (EEG, fMRI) or causal methods (tDCS, TMS) are better. Although focal stimulation (by tDCS or TMS) can allow us to assume that stimulation causes a particular behaviour to occur it is important to remember that much of the brain is sandwiched between the manipulated focal regions and the behavioural measure. Behaviours have evolved to rely on neural networks not isolated regions.

Below I have given a list of some problems that we can expect to be solved soon, problems that may yet take decades of research to solve, problems that will take an unforeseen time to solve and problems that we may never solve.

Soon to be solved.
1) How do single neurons compute?
2) How does sensory transduction work?
3) What is the connectome of a small nervous system, like that of the Caenorhabitis elegans (of only 300 neurons)?
4) How can we image a live brain of 100,000 neurons at cellular and millisecond resolution?

Should be solved within decades.
5) How do circuits of neurons compute?
6) How can we image a live mouse brain at cellular and millisecond resolution?
7) What causes psychiatric and neurological illness?
8) How does learning and memory work?
9) How do we make decision?
10) Why do we sleep and dream?
11) How does the brain represent abstract ideas?

Should be solved in the unforeseen future.
12) How does the mouse brain compute?
13) What is the complete connectome of the human brain (all 80,000,000,000 neurons)?
14) How can we image a live human brain at the cellular level with millisecond resolution?
15) How can we completely cure psychiatric and neurological diseases?
16) Can we make everybody’s brain function best?

Some problems that may never be solved.
17) How does the human brain compute?
18) How does conscious experience arise?
19) Why does conscious experience arise?
20) How can cognition be flexible and generative?

Further questions that may be answered in the future.
21) How can we build a brain? (how does evolution and development do it?).
22) What are the different ways of understanding the brain? (e.g., functional, algorithm, implementation).

Answering these questions for neuroscientists will of course take decades of research and in some cases some of these questions may never be answered. These questions are a tall-order for the research community. However, it is through keeping these large questions in mind that scientific progress is made. Neuroscience is a fast paced discipline with most of our knowledge of neuroscience having been accumulated since the 1990s. We can expect to see some great achievements and progress over the next 50 years.

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Daniel Edgcumbe

I am studying towards my PhD in cognitive neuroscience at a leading London university

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