Semblance Hypothesis

First-Person Neuroscience

What is unique about neuroscience? What makes us get attracted to it? The simplest answer is the difficulty to understand it. In order to get a clear picture, it is necessary to examine other systems in the body. For example, the main feature of the circulatory system is the pumping action of the heart. It remained a mystery to us until we tried to understand it. First we dissected human cadavers and observed the heart and blood vessels. They we conducted studies to view and explore the contractile function of the heart and that of the blood flow. Finally we were successful in developing transplanting artificial heart, which became a solid proof for our knowledge about this system.

 

What makes studies of the brain so unique? Brain is an organ where first-person inner sensations of the mind are being generated. We have no previous experience in dealing with a system that generates first-person properties. It is a real challenge. If it is not for this challenge, many of us who work towards understanding the brain would not have been studying brain in the first place. We like to take these challenges, fail and fail again and eventually we hope one day we will become successful.

In this context, we need to be very hard on the problem at hand and we need to face all the realities. A typical example is a news that is heartbreaking. During the last ten years, large number of pharmaceutical companies moved away from drug development for neurological and psychiatric disorders (see references 1 to 3). What is the reason? It is most likely that they have lost confidence in investing because many of the drug trials are failing. They cannot foresee making profits if research results continue at this pace. For the community, it is a great loss since we are forced to live without having effective medications either to prevent or to reverse pathological changes in these disorders.

At this juncture, we are forced to ask the question “Is there a possible reason why these drug trials constantly fail?” A close examination shows that the studies of the higher brain functions and their dysfunctions are being carried out using surrogate markers such as speech output and behavioral motor actions for making conclusions. We are not attempting to understand the mechanism that operates to generate first-person inner sensations of memory. This is due to the lack of a scientific method to explore the first-person inner sensations of the higher brain functions. In order to design treatment methods to stop the loss of higher brain functions (e. g. memory problems) or alternations of higher brain functions (e.g. hallucinations), an exact science to explain a mechanism by which the first-person internal sensations are getting induced needs to be developed. Fixing the problems will become possible only when we truly understand the normal operational mechanism. In this context, it is necessary to develop specialized methods to explore and understand how first-person internal sensations are induced within the system. This can be best accomplished by having a dedicated first-person neuroscience. The main differences between current third-person neuroscience studies and a future first-person neuroscience studies are given the following table.

                 Third-Person Neuroscience

                                                 First-Person Neuroscience

Studies taking place at various levels are based on third-person observations. Examples include the following.

Biochemical findings: Gene expression and action of protein molecules.

Cellular changes: Outgrowths of neuronal processes, new neuron formation and their connections and neuronal firing.

Electrophysiological changes: Changes in AMPA and NMDA receptor currents, changes in postsynaptic potentials and changes in voltage-dependent calcium currents.

Systems changes: Oscillating potentials recordable from using either surface or extracellular electrodes.

Imaging findings: Changes in signals in fMRI, changes in neuronal ensembles that fire during a higher brain function.

Behavioral changes: Speech and motor actions that can provide sensory inputs to third-person experimenters regarding the formation of first-person internal sensations.

First-person scientific approach deals with studying the mechanism of induction of first-person internal sensations. Currently these are considered as emergent properties. The apparent bottleneck in this approach is the access problem. What we need are methods and tools to overcome the challenges of the access problem.

Since third-person experimenters cannot access the first-person properties, the methods to solve the issue involve the following critical steps 1) Hypothesize a feasible mechanism that explains the nodal points at which internal sensation can emerge and specific conditions. It should have all the elements that can satisfy the requirements to explain findings made at various levels by different fields of neuroscience. 2) The hypothesized mechanism should be able to operate in union with the known circuit properties and should be able to explain various nervous system functions 3) Using the hypothesized mechanism, develop a circuit to conduct the gold standard test of replicating the mechanism in engineered systems. At this stage, it is required to know the nodal points and conditions in which units of internal sensations emerge as a systems property. 4) Devise methods to capture the emergent properties by converting them to suitable readouts for the third-person experimenters. This is a feasible step since we are designing the engineered system.

What steps are needed to develop a first-person neuroscience?

1. Some steps can be taken immediately. Neuroscience experiments that study the first-person functions such as consciousness, perception and memory should make it explicit whether the study was conducted to examine a surrogate marker for the fist-person property or studied the first-person property directly. This will initiate awareness about the need to undertake studies of the first-person properties.

 

2. Provide equal importance to negative results in neuroscience research. Hiring bodies and funding agencies should consider providing equal weight for reporting negative research results.

 

3. Develop methods to study the first-person properties. It requires consensus and contributions from large number of investigators. It is a fact that we have succeeded in the past in dealing with virtual things. For example, we invented numbers, which actually do not exist. We then invented negative numbers and plotted graphs with virtual spaces and we are able to extend our mind towards those locations. it is resonable that we should be able to develop a similar approach to understand the first-person properties. It can be argued that by establishing fundamentally strong basis, we should become comfortable in dealing with the first-person inner sensations.

References

1. Wegener G, Rujescu D (2013) The current development of CNS drug research. International Journal of Neuropsychopharmacology. 16(7):1687-93. Article

 

2.  Burke M (2014) Why Alzheimer's drugs keep failing. Scientific American. Article

3.   Mehta D, Jackson R, Paul G, Shi J, Sabbagh M. (2017) Why do trials for Alzheimer's disease drugs keep failing? A discontinued drug perspective for 2010-2015. Expert Opinion on  Investigational Drugs 26(6):735-739. Article