Origins of consciousness

consciousnessOrigins of Consciousness


(*) Neuron cell bodies and axons from mouse hippocampus, visualized with the Brainbow technique.

Consciousness is perhaps the ultimate achievement of the human brain, and its origin is among the greatest of scientific mysteries. How do 100 billion electrically active nerve cells produce us: our thoughts, our feelings, our sense of self? The human brain has been called the “universe within” and the “three-pound universe.” Our research in the Origins of Consciousness theme will focus on the universe within, across all animal species, a natural complement to our themes that focus on biodiversity and on the external universe.

Any attempt to understand the origins of consciousness must address fundamental unresolved questions that apply to animal nervous systems generally: How do nervous systems develop, and how do they mediate the variety of sensory, motor, and cognitive functions that define the individual and the species? An exciting and rapidly growing body of research is beginning to elucidate the development and functioning of the nervous system in humans and nonhumans. This research uses experimental and theoretical approaches, and brings together biologists, physicists, mathematicians, computer scientists, cognitive scientists, and others. The OI is well-positioned to facilitate such interdisciplinary collaborations under its Origins of Consciousness theme.


Research opportunities

Expression patterns
Expression patterns of two synaptic proteins in the rat brainstem, revealed by immunofluorescence on a laser-scanning confocal microscope, delineate processing areas that compare the loudness and arrival time of sound at the two ears. These areas are key elements of neural circuits that allow mammals to localize the source of a sound (Image credit: Gillespie lab).

We seek to elucidate two fundamental yet mysterious features of the nervous system, among others: First, the nervous system is self-organizing. How do neurons form connections with one another? How do neural circuits develop the specific pattern of interconnectivity needed to carry out their functions? Second, the nervous system is a computational machine. How does it process information? What information-processing calculations does it perform? These and other big questions in neuroscience can be investigated fruitfully via collaborations among scientists from many disciplines.

Our research will fall within the fields of both developmental and computational neuroscience, while intersecting with many other fields. Developmental neuroscience seeks to understand how the nervous system assembles itself. Research in this area investigates the cues - both hardwired (genetic) and plastic (e.g., in response to environmental factors) - that instruct neural development: the differentiation of precursor cells into specific neuronal cell types, the guidance of neuronal processes to appropriate targets, and the specification of neuronal architecture. Computational neuroscience seeks to understand how neurons process information, among other topics. Research in this area investigates biophysical models of single neurons, models of networks of interacting neurons, and probabilistic models of perception.



(*) Reprinted by permission from Macmillan Publishers Ltd: Nature 450(7166):56-62, J Livet et al., Transgenic strategies for combinatorial expression of fluorescent proteins in the nervous system. copyright 2007.