What if the synapse isn’t really doing what we think?

It’s hard to find a more profound challenge to a central tenet of neuroscience: in our so far unrewarded struggle to locate our elusive memories within the junctions between brain cells, shouldn’t we also be looking inside the neuron itself?

Everything you learned in your textbooks told you over and over that memory and computation is all about synapses, but Gallistel says:

“I suggest that the computational capacities of individual neurons may have been grossly underestimated. I cite recent results suggesting that acquired information is stored inside neurons. I argue that if the information on which the computations operate is stored inside the neuron, then important computational machinery must also be there.”

By the way, there is something potentially even more important (perhaps seminal?) about this video.

Although this video initially appears to follow the time-honoured (and nowadays TED talk perpetuated) tradition of having a noted erudite speaker talk with passion and eloquence about their latest and most intriguing discoveries, ideas and activities, it then proceeds to do something much less conventional.

The first talk is followed by another, also given by a distinguished researcher in a closely related field, who presents a robust challenge to the first speaker’s talk.

As if this wasn’t a sufficiently unusual (and thought provoking) departure from established science talk video (and university speaking engagement) conventions, after the applause for the second talk has died down, things proceed to an even more riveting climax as the two battling professors then proceed to take the stage together and get into a live (and lively, but good natured) debate point by point (they also share the audience Q and A at the very end).

Can a synapse (or a network of synapses) store a number? (Gallistel says that there is no experimental evidence that it can).

If synapses can’t store numbers, does this seriously undermine the entire neurological connectionist edifice?

This ‘friendly but adversarial’ format doesn’t just ‘spice things up’, it genuinely strengthens the viewer’s engagement with important controversies and the debate which surrounds them.

I’ll finish off by listing the honors that each of these two speakers have accrued in their respective careers, just in case you were wondering just how deserving this video was of your attention:

Charles Randy Gallistel, Professor, Cognitive Science, Rutgers University, USA

    • Member National Academy of Sciences (USA) 2002
    • Member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences 2001
    • William James Fellow of the Association for Psychological Science 2006
    • Fellow, Society of Experimental Psychologists
    • Warren Medal of the Society of Experimental Psychologists 2006
    • Hebb Award from Division 6 of the American Psychological Association 2011
    • Fellow, Sage Mind Institute, UC, Santa Barbara, Mid May-June, 2008
    • Schlossberg Lecture, Brown, 2010
    • Teuber Lecturer MIT 2006
    • Blackwell Lectureship, University of Maryland, Nov 2003
    • APA Distinguished Scientist Lecturer (MPA, May 2004)
    • MacEachern Lectureship, University of Alberta, Oct. 1997
    • James McKeen Cattell Fund Sabbatical Award ’95-’96
    • Fellow, Center for Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences, 1984-1985
    • Chair Section J (Psychology) AAAS (1995)
    • Fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science

John Lisman, Professor, Neuroscience and Biology, Brandeis University

    • Zalman Abraham Kekst Chair in Neuroscience (2006)
    • The National Alliance for Research on Schizophrenia and Depression Investigator Award (2003)
    • Javits Neuroscience Investigator Award (1989 – 1996)
    • MERIT (Method to Extend Research in Time) Award, National Eye Institute (1987 – 1992)
    • Grass Foundation Fellow (1972)
    • Marine Biological Laboratory Award (1971)

The event in the video was:

The Mind, Brain Behavior (MBB) Distinguished Lecture

“It’s The Neuron!” How the brain really works

Harvard University

Wednesday April the 9th 2014