Shaping the future direction of neuroscience

The Max Planck Institute for Biological Cybernetics in Tübingen has attracted two renowned scientists, Dr. Peter Dayan and Prof. Dr. Zhaoping Li. A GTC doctoral student, Aiste Seibokaite, talked with the newcomers about their plans for the future of the institute and to give neuroscience a push to accelerate scientific progress.

Why and how has the MPI for Biological Cybernetics attracted you both?

Peter: This institute is really the foundation of our field. It was started by Werner Reichardt in the late 1960s and is the place where computational neuroscience started. For me, this institute was extremely attractive both as an idea and as a place. We had both been in London for 20 years, which is quite a fair amount of time – one needs new influences and new experiences at some point. Furthermore, it’s a good opportunity to take advantage of different sorts of expertise in Tübingen: at the university, the MPI for Intelligent Systems, the MPI for Developmental Biology, the Friedrich Miescher Lab and the resources the Max Planck Society itself provides. It enables a very effective way of doing certain things we’d like to do.

Zhaoping: It is true for computational neuroscience, or biological cybernetics as it was called originally, as indeed for other scientific fields, that its path has had its ups and downs. So, as a field changes, you can see opportunities to shape its direction. We feel that right now it’s the correct time to combine theory and experiments more closely than ever before to achieve faster research progress.

Peter, what is your vision for the future of the MPI for Biological Cybernetics? What are the most urgent tasks for you, as the director of the institute?

Peter: The Institute has been extremely scientifically successful in both its previous generations. Now, changes in the field call for an evolution in the vision for future research and also  organization. In research, we want to return to the field’s roots in terms of combining theory and experiments. There’s a lot of new technology which has come out enabling us to answer the questions we have wanted to address for a long time.

Organizationally, we are redesigning the institute a little bit. Instead of having large individual departments, which is traditional at the Max Planck Society, we are going to have slightly smaller departments and then have a large number of independent  research groups, which will cover a range of topics. Right now, we need to hire two new directors, one probably working in the general area of cognitive neuroscience and psychiatry, and another one working in animal model systems using optogenetics and other modern methods. Along with me, Zhaoping and Prof. Dr. Klaus Scheffler they will form the nucleus of the permanent groups, around which the other research groups will form for limited periods each. So, our first job is to hire people. We are hiring directors,  group research leaders and, of course, for our own research, we are hiring postdocs, students, and staff members.

Zhaoping, you are also establishing a department at the MPI for Biological Cybernetics. What topics will you cover in your research?

Zhaoping: One way to answer this question is to talk about a long-term topic – for me, it’s understanding the brain. For example, we understand the world by sensing: by seeing, smelling, touching and feeling. Our sensory systems are thus the entrance point to understanding the brain, and thus I will focus on sensory systems, in particular on vision and smell, by looking how they enable us to act intelligently. When it comes to vision, I am interested in understanding the principles of vision in one animal, transferring that model to another animal and looking into whether the same principles apply and, if not – what underlies the differences. Coming to the MPI and the University of Tübingen, I have an opportunity to extend my work from a more theoretical focus to a more experimental one. Not only to collaborate – which I have been doing – but also to perform the experiments myself. This is not to replace collaboration – I believe my doing the experiments would make my collaborations better as well as making me a better theorist. How we understand vision has not made enough progress in recent years, so to shape the development of the field, one needs to try something new when the old approach is not working as well. I now have an opportunity to test my theories, which have already been tested in humans and non-human primates, in rodents and fish. This will be my contribution to the field, conducting research both at the university – I am a professor there now – and at the MPI.

Peter: For example, in the field of decision-making, close interaction between theorists and experimenters allowed it to leap ahead in a very short period of time. However, when you look more deeply into the field of vision, it seems it has become hampered by a comparative lack of such an effective close interaction between theorists and experimenters.

Zhaoping: Exactly. Only with these close interactions you can ask the right question. Whether one asks the right questions matters a lot. For example, if we assume that we think by our heart and then start cutting pieces of the heart to investigate how our thinking becomes impaired, we might achieve less progress in understanding thinking. Sometimes it’s all about asking the right question. And what do we need in order to switch from looking at the heart to looking at the brain in this case? One needs to respect the data, but also, approach it theoretically.

Peter, what will your research endeavours be here in Tübingen?

Peter: I plan to work in three different areas. One is neuromodulation. I have been working for almost 30 years thinking about dopamine, serotonin, norepinephrine and acetylcholine. Again, it’s a great time to come back to questions on these neuromodulators as there are plenty of new techniques that can be applied in order to understand them. The most significant progress has been made on dopamine, next comes serotonin, and I would like to do the same for the norepinephrine and acetylcholine. These neuromodulators have a global control of  many aspects of brain plasticity and excitability and they are deeply implicated in psychiatric disease.

Another thing I would work on is meta-control or meta-cognition – that’s control of control. One of the things that the field has revealed recently is how we have many different systems, which interact to make decisions. I am interested in the nature of this interaction, trying to understand the way the brain chooses different systems, the way it optimizes the trade-off between the complexity of making a decision, the speed and the accuracy of that decision, in the face of different sorts of complexity.
And the third area is the computational psychiatry, which is using decision-making as a gateway to understand the roots of psychiatric diseases, including ultimately applications to therapy and treatment.

In your opinion, which fields of neuroscience will receive the most attention from the researchers as well as the public in the future?

Zhaoping: I wonder if it’s brain disease. Although prevalent in our aging population, mental illness is also prevalent even in very young children. Not only is this topic of particular importance for the public’s sake, but it is also a window for us to look into the brain, to understand the brain. Both sides – the public and the researchers – will benefit greatly from engaging with this topic more.

Peter: Another promising field is education. Many people feel that things like educational apps are not tapping into some of the things we know about how learning could work. Also relevant to this is that at the MPI for Intelligent Systems, there is a group working on rationality enhancement, essentially the way that we can come to be better thinkers.

Of course, I agree that mental diseases – both psychiatric diseases and neurological diseases are critical topics for many societies that do a terrible job preventing and treating them in general. Everybody realises that it is a dramatically underfunded part of the healthcare system. Societal costs of mental diseases will be huge in the future. It’s an area where we should be able to make progress due to rapid progress of neuroscientific knowledge. However, psychiatry is only slowly responding to neuroscience research, in a way that new treatments could be designed and new ways of thinking about treatment and diseases could be fostered.

Zhaoping: Of course, we are not studying the brain just for the sole purpose of treating diseases. We also have a human imperative for knowledge about nature and for self-understanding – curiosity is central to our very beings. Intellectual pursuits are some of the most important cultural traditions of Tübingen!

Peter: I think it’s quite woeful not understanding something that’s just two centimetres behind our noses!

Are you looking forward to some interesting collaborations to be established here in Tübingen?

Zhaoping: I always believe collaboration benefits everybody. I knew some of my current colleagues from before, and now I am getting to know them even better; but I am also seeking out new contacts, always asking around what different people do. I’m learning as if I were a student again! My research gets refreshed when I learn new things – I don’t want to do just the old thing, so I balance it out with new ideas.

Peter: When you come to a new place you get infused with new ideas for collaborations. For example, I have been recently reminded of the importance of various aspects of reorganization of representations during sleep – something I worked on earlier in my career. This has come up in decision-making as well – we do some computations during our sleep, in order to make better decisions when we are awake. In London, I didn’t think that much about sleep because, as it happened, there were no people near me working in that area. But here, the presence of different people allows me to think about certain topics in a new way.

On a more personal note, you are husband and wife – could you let us know how your work-life balance looks?

Peter: [laughs] Terrible.

Zhaoping: If we both are very busy during the same season, there’s no easy way, but we can balance our lives when one is busy and the other one is not so much. Fortunately, we both are in the brain science and even though our topics are different in a narrow sense, we can share a lot with each other. On the other hand, there’s a little bit of conflict when it comes to job locations. But as a couple, we benefit from being together. For example, when Peter was asked to take this position at Max Planck Institute, at first, it looked like an extremely overwhelming task. It would be difficult for just one person to tackle the reorganization, while also attending to the director’s duties. And finding another director to help would take another two years, at least. If Peter had to come here alone, this would have discouraged him from taking the job. But now he has my support – I can help to make it easier on him. On the other hand, it puts additional stress on us as husband and wife.

Peter: We both were very involved in creating the Gatsby Institute in London at the beginning. In these situations, you see the power of all sorts of ideas. We have different backgrounds – Zhaoping has a degree in Physics, I was a Mathematician – two fields that look very similar, from a distance, but have very different ways of seeing the world. It is enriching to have these different perspectives. There is some imbalance, though. I think we both are very animated by the questions how the brain works. But our kids might think that we are probably a little too unbalanced in the direction of work.

Zhaoping: They probably think that we can never stop [laughs]... But if you are passionate about work, you want to spend your life in it. Of course, there are lots of difficulties, and our life is not perfect.

Peter: One striking thing here is the work schedule – in London we were not allowed to have seminars that start after 4pm, because people have families, while here seminars routinely start at 6pm or even 6:30pm, which seems unfortunate timing. Another issue, if you look at the under-representation of women in the Max Planck Society or the University of Tübingen, these are the things that need changing. Change is happening; but perhaps not fast enough.

Zhaoping: I’d like to share my experience as a woman in science with other women of the younger generation. There still exist factors that need to be changed and we can only accomplish that by working together.

Any tips for young academic couples on how to successfully advance their careers together?

Zhaoping: I am not sure if we did that so successfully… In fact, sometimes it is so difficult and you have to make compromises. I just hope that young couples these days do not have to make the compromises we had. Compromises make society inefficient, because they hinder successes from which everyone can benefit. Talent can get underused and wasted.

Peter: The difficulty is that there’s an unfair imbalance in a sense of how we are seen by the scientific community. For example, Zhaoping was the only woman ever to win a top prize at a very prestigious Chinese National Physics competition, but she couldn’t take full advantage of this achievement, because our society is not gender fair. So young couples have to understand that these imbalances can arise in a very unreasonable way and work out how to avoid their negative effects. Couples have to learn how to cope with this and still make progress, despite the stress and strains that happen in science.

Dear Peter and Zhaoping, thank you for the interview, we hope to hear from you again soon!

Aiste Seibokaite is a GTC doctoral student and a member of work group “Innovative Neuroimaging in Psychiatry” led by Prof. Birgit Derntl in Tübingen.


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