The Bright Future of Cognitive Neuroscience

The focus and approach of whole sciences can at times be challenged by the sudden appearance of new tools and powerful technologies. Very recently new imaging techniques, methods and insights have opened the way to fresh paradigms in the study of t he human mind and its substrate, the brain. In the last several years it became possible to actually "watch" the brain work. Images of functioning brains taken from PET scans and fNMR have fired the public imagination and have invigorated the sciences which claim the brain and the mind as their domain. Computational tools for modeling the intricate workings of the mind have become exponentially more powerful and are allowing researchers to test theories about which previously they could only postulat e.

It has often been the case that sciences have reoriented themselves to take advantage of new technologies and techniques. Within the last few years a need for an interdisciplinary, newly equipped approach to study the human mind and brain has come to bear. Cognitive Neuroscience is shaping up to be that approach. It has sprung up to fill some of the gap between neuroscience and cognitive psychology and to take advantage of the technologies now available. Both fields have been populated with pe ople who have wanted to ask larger, more comprehensive questions of their fields than the recent state of the art had allowed. Many in the neurosciences had been asking questions of how neurons give rise to higher level cognitive functions. A number of cognitive scientists on the other hand have long felt the need to have their theories of mental functioning informed by a knowledge of the biological bases of thought.

A large number of articles and books have monitored the growth of Cognitive Neuroscience. The following is a summary of one of them, an article in an edition of Science entitled Cognitive Neuroscience: A World with a Future (Waldrop, M. Mitchell (1993). Science, 261, 1805-1807). While the article can not be reproduced here, it is well worth reading in its entirety. The following is summary of that publication.


Much of the excitement focused on Cognitive Neuroscience comes from researchers who have been pushing against the boundaries of their respective field for years. Israel Lederhendler, head of behavioral neuroscience at NIMH says that the field is moti vated by a feeling that "things are about to be understood." Harvard's Stephen Kosslyn believes that we are going to "look back on this as a watershed". Of the power the new imaging techniques Kosslyn goes on to say that they have given his own resea rch "enormous leverage". "Before, all we had was cognitive data and theorizing. Now we have the brain too."

As advances in imaging have added new potential to the neurosciences, so too neural networks and computational models have added new power to the cognitive approaches. M. Mitchell Waldrop, the author of the article, describes neural networks models a s tools that enable researchers to "probe how high-level functions such as perceiving, attending, learning, planning, and remembering emerge from the massively parallel neural architecture of the brain." Jonathan Cohen, of University of Pittsburgh and C MU, states that a "neural network is the perfect language for bridging the gap between biological and cognitive processes..." and "... allow you to make a much clearer mapping between the levels- using a structure similar to that used by the brain."

One result of the feverish pace of Cognitive Neuroscience is the creation of new job opportunities. At present there are only a small number of people in the U.S. who are trained as cognitive neuroscientists. Michael Gazzaniga of the University of California, Davis, states that "Psychology departments across the country have realized that they've got to get into brain science- in humans and not just rats." He goes on to say that departments looking for "people who can liaison with clinicians wor king with brain-damaged patients, with people doing brain imaging, with the computer jocks". Cohen notes that up till now research efforts in the various fields have not been connected: "People have been working at both ends with nothing in the middle." Filling the gaps in the middle is a process which calls for uniquely trained individuals.

James Tanaka of Oberlin college observes that universities today are trying to fill positions with people who combine "... good experimental skills [in Psychology], while at the same time they want good computational skills and/or a strong neuroscienc e background". He goes on point out that this type of background is crucial in finding a position. "The people who are just one or the other may be outstanding scientists. But they aren't the hot candidates they would have been 5 years ago".

Neurology departments, too, see the need for such liaison. In order to take advantage of the most recent tools for clinical work, people who can span the various fields are crucial. As stated above, neuroscientists see the necessity of such a backg round if the university based efforts to understand higher cognitive efforts are going to be advanced. And since those backgrounds were not the standard fair in university education in the past, a dearth of people with the right combination of skills ha s developed. University of Pittsburgh, Walter Schneider has observed that finding staff with the right blend of "cognitive psychology, neurophysiology, computational modeling, brain imaging.... is a tall order."

In the past many students and researchers have attempted to fill that order by added classes to their curriculum on their own. Researchers who see a need for the new tools appearing just outside of their fields have gone back for training to catch u p. Students trying to get the training which would make them attractive to research efforts have had to add classes outside of their official disciplines. Recently, however, new programs have arisen to provide an organized training regimen geared spec ifically to the new opportunities.

Of these new program Waldrop notes that "... a prime example is the joint Neural Processes In Cognition that Schneider directs at Pittsburgh and Carnegie Mellon." He goes on to describe the program. "Funded by a 5-year, $1.4 million, interdisciplin ary training grant from the National Science Foundation, the program is entering its third year. And prospects for its graduates are looking good." Before any of the students had even finished their dissertation work, Walrope observed, many of the stud ents were "already being courted by potential employers."

Flowing toward the enthusiasm and logical need for cognitive neuroscience, funding has been growing rapidly. Among the most significant supporters of the various training and hiring efforts have been the National Science Foundation, the NIMH and the Office of Naval Research. Additionally one of the most influential supporters has been the McDonnell Foundation in St. Louis and the Pew Charitable Trust in Philadelphia. Many of these contributors have pledged their support through the remainder of th e decade.

In what has been declared to be the decade of the exploration of the brain, powerful new tools and technologies have vastly expanded the potential research to be done. For those trained to exploit those new resources the future looks very promising. One of the founding figures in cognitive neuroscience, Michael Gazzaniga, predicts that the challenge and the opportunity will last well past the decade. "Figuring out how the mind arises from the brain - there's a couple of hundred years of work yet. "