Why a brain is more than the sum of its parts

A computer model that treats the nervous system as a whole, rather than as a combination of individual neurons, can be used to predict behavior.

A model of activity in the nervous system of a worm predicts the future behavior of real worms. Adapted from image by Arne Hendriks. Image credit: Brennan and Proekt (CC BY 4.0)

How can we go about trying to understand an object as complex as the brain? The traditional approach is to begin by studying its component parts, cells called neurons. Once we understand how individual neurons work, we can use computers to simulate the activity of networks of neurons. The result is a computer model of the brain. By comparing this model to data from real brains, we can try to make the model as similar to a real brain as possible.

But whose brain should we try to reproduce? The roundworm C. elegans, for example, has just 302 neurons in total. Advances in brain imaging mean it is now possible to identify each of these neurons and compare its activity across worms. But doing so reveals that the activity of any given neuron varies greatly between individuals. This is true even among genetically identical worms performing the same behavior.

Researchers trying to model the roundworm brain have attempted to model the average activity of each neuron across many worms. They hoped they could use these averages to predict the behavior of other worms from their neuronal activity. But this approach did not to work. Even in roundworms, the coordinated activity of many neurons is required to generate even simple behaviors. Averaging the activity of neurons across worms thus scrambles the information that encodes each behavior.

Brennan and Proekt have now overcome this problem by developing a more abstract model that treats the nervous system as a whole. The model takes into account changes in the activity of neurons, and in the worms’ behavior, over time. A model of this type built using one set of worms can predict the behavior of another set of worms. This approach may work because in evolution natural selection acts at the level of behaviors, and not at the level of individual neurons. The activity of individual neurons can thus vary between animals, even when those neurons encode the same behavior. This means it may also be possible to model the human brain without knowing the activity of each of its billions of neurons.