In 2000, John Hopfield and Carlos Brody put out an interesting challenge to the neuroscience community. They came up with a neural network, constructed out of simple well known neural elements, that could do a simple speech recognition task. The network was robust to noise and the speed the sentences were spoken. They conducted some numerical experiments on the network and provided the “data” to anyone interested. People were encouraged to submit solutions for how the network worked and Jeff Hawkins of Palm Pilot fame kicked in a small prize for the best answer. The initial challenge with the mock data and the implementation details were published separately in PNAS. Our computational neuroscience journal club at Pitt worked on the problem for a few weeks. We came pretty close to getting the correct answer but missed one crucial element.
Hopfield wanted to present the model as a challenge to serve as an example that sometimes more data won’t help you understand a problem. I’ve extrapolated this thought into the statement that perhaps we already know all the neurophysiology we need to understand the brain but just haven’t put the pieces together in the right way yet. I call this the Hopfield Hypothesis. I think many neuroscientists believe that there are still many unknown physiological mechanisms that need to be discovered and so what we need are not more theories but more experiments and data. Even some theorists believe this notion. I personally know one very prominent computational neuroscientist who believes that there may be some mechanism that we have not yet discovered that is essential for understanding the brain.
Currently, I’m a proponent of the Hopfield Hypothesis. That is not to say I don’t think there will be mechanisms, and important ones at that, yet to be discovered. I’m sure this is true but I do think that much of how the brain functions could be understood with what we already know, namely that the brain is composed of populations of excitatory and inhibitory neurons with connections that obey synaptic plasticity rules such as long-term potentiation and spike-time dependent plasticity with adaptation mechanisms such as synaptic facilitation, synaptic depression, and spike frequency adaptation that operate on multiple time scales. Thus far, using these mechanisms we can construct models of working memory, synchronous neural firing, perceptual rivalry, decision making, and so forth. However, we still don’t have the big picture. My sense is that neural systems are highly scale dependent so as we begin to analyze and simulate larger and more complex networks, we will find new unexpected properties and get closer to figuring out the brain.