Happy Wednesday! Today's Brain Awareness Week interview is with Olaf Sporns, Head of the Computational Cognitive Neuroscience Laboratory at Indiana University Bloomington and author of Networks of the Brain.
What sparked your interest in researching brain connectivity?
My undergraduate major was in Biochemistry, a field that was attractive to me for several reasons. Above my desk, I had pinned a large chart of "Biochemical Pathways" and I often marveled at the intertwined chains of chemical reactions that govern cellular metabolism, tightly controlled by complex biomolecules that catalyze specific reactions and regulate the flow of material. I wanted to understand the principles that organized this mess of molecules (at least that's what it looked like at first glance) into a coherent biochemical system. I began modeling some simple examples of molecular kinetics, and thus became familiar with mathematical tools like differential equations and coupling structures, also called a connectivity matrix. Later, when my attention shifted to the brain, I naturally brought along these tools and started modeling networks of neurons and brain regions. It seemed natural to me to look for principles of neural organization in the brain's connection matrix, and that got me into reading about graph theory and networks. I haven't stopped since.
How have your research topics and/or methods changed over the course of your career?
I started as a student of biochemistry, running long series of experiments in "wet labs". At the same time I pursued what was then called "mathematical biology", with an interest in "systems theory" and models of pattern formation. During my PhD, I switched to neuroscience, modeling neural networks (a novelty item in the 1980's!) and even interfacing such neural models with robots. Robotics really brought taught me an important lesson about how the brain is fundamentally embodied, especially how important it is to engage in bodily movement to sample and select inputs in an environment. My first forays into graph theory and studies of brain connectivity were difficult to "sell" for many years --hardly anyone cared! Luckily I persisted: suddenly, just a few years ago, in parallel with the general expansion of network science across many disciplines and driven by the availability of new brain connectivity data sets, network approaches to the understanding the brain really took off. Now I find myself reading papers, working with colleagues and attending conferences across a very wide range of topics -- from statistical physics and computational intelligence, to brain imaging and complex systems. I can't wait to find out where this journey will take me next.
What kinds of changes (if any) do you think we need to make in brain science education?
I think that modern brain science should deserves to occupy a central role in the general curriculum -- perhaps more central than it is now. As I like to tell my students on the first day of class: There's nothing boring about the brain! A wide range of issues that have immediate personal or societal impact, from an individual's memory, emotions, consciousness, and decision making all the way to behavioral economics, social communication, and brain and mental disorders, all revolve around the nexus of brain and behavior. Learning about the brain and its relation to body and environment is learning about ourselves and our place in the social and biological world. Brain science education should give students the tools to explore how our mental life depends on the functioning of the brain, and how our behavior is shaped by how brain and body interact. Some of the most exciting research in these areas is carried out by bridging traditional disciplines, combining evolution and development, physiology and anatomy, computation and networks, psychology and cognitive science. All these disciplines contribute to our modern understanding of the brain, and all of them should have a place in modern brain science education.