New German Memorandum on Neuroscience presented

What has happened in neuroscience research in the last ten years? Have expectations been satisfied? Jürgen Hampel and Christian Hofmaier from the University of Stuttgart try to explain what has changed since 2004.

Ten years after the presentation of a manifesto[1] on neuroscience presented by a group of leading German neuroscientists, a memorandum[2] has been published in order to evaluate the promises of the manifesto.

The 2004 paper reflected the latest developments of brain research and formulated short term (10 years) and long term (20 years and more) perspectives on brain research and its possible effects and applications. The authors of this manifesto stated that brain research has made substantial progress, on both the macro level, the localization of brain functions, and on the micro level, the processing of information on a neural level. Nevertheless, the authors conceded that the way cognitive functions are based on the interaction of groups of cells is not yet understood, they stated that in the long run, the materialistic view that any cognitive activity and emotion can be described as the outcome of physical and chemical processes which will be understood in the future will replace a dualistic view on these processes. 

Although the authors of the manifesto recognized that the brain is a highly complex non-linear system, they expected major breakthrough in the future. As a consequence of improved research methods and better technical devices they expected that the processes in the brain would be modeled with high speed computing systems, and subsequently a decoding of the functions of the brain would be possible. They also expected a theoretical development in brain research following the model of theoretical physics and quantum theory. They also expected applications of brain research, i.e. the prevention, diagnosis and therapy of neuro-degenerative diseases, and the development of psychotropic drugs which are free from side effects as well as new kinds of “neuroprotheses” e.g. artificial retinas.

Ten years after the release of this paper, in 2014, a group of neuroscientists presented a new memorandum. Different to the manifesto, the majority of the authors of the new memorandum has a background of cognitive neuroscience. The new memorandum evaluated the expectations raised by the 2004 memorandum and came to a sceptical view on the developments of brain research. The new memorandum criticizes that none of the promises of the manifesto had been substantiated. If there was a progress in brain research, this progress was caused by better methods of measurement. The successes of brain research are constricted to the prediction of precisely defined sensory and cognitive activities while the subjective aspects of brain activities like mind, consciousness still are far from being clarified. As a major problem for brain research they criticize a fundamental lack of a theoretical model to explain brain functions, something which was promised in the 2004 paper. They criticize that brain research still focuses on better research methods leading to large amounts of descriptive data, but not on the development of theoretical concepts for a better understanding of the brain and its functions. They criticize that although the authors of the manifesto recognized that the brain is a highly complex non-linear system this did not lead to targeted research to solve this problem. In consequence, the authors of the new memorandum criticize exaggerated claims for explanation due to assumptions which are too simplified. Instead of the collection of new masses of data, the authors of the new memorandum demand a re-orientation of brain research in the direction of interdisciplinary and transdisciplinary discourses with systems science, philosophy, psychology and methodology of science to overcome the shortcomings of brain research in its present form.

Picture credits: Thomas Schultz - Own work http://goo.gl/aXzbni



[1] Elger, Christian E. et al. (2004): Das Manifest. In: Gehirn & Geist 6/04, 30-37. For a German online version see URL http://www.gehirn-und-geist.de/alias/psychologie-hirnforschung/das-manifest/852357, last time checked on May 16th.

[2] Tretter, Felix et al. (2014): Memorandum „Reflexive Neurowissenschaft“. In: Psychologie heute. For a German online version see URL https://www.psychologie-heute.de/home/lesenswert/memorandum-reflexive-neurowissenschaft/, last time checked on May 16th.