MedCrunch: Can you elaborate on the challenges of understanding the brain?
Rafael Yuste: The biggest challenge is that our linear circuit was built over thousands of years. The information we have about the brain is either coming from single neurons or from very low-resolution maps of activity that you can gather from and MRI, EG or REG. We are missing the middle picture: what happens if these neuro-circuits are on a scale that goes from the single neuron to the entire periphery. The reason we are missing that picture is because we don´t have the technology to read out that activity. We can read out the activity of single neurons or we can read out the activity on a wider scale. It´s a little bit like imagining how a city works: you can only take pictures from very high up in space and see neighborhoods but you can´t see individual people. So that would be the MRI. On the other hand you can talk to single people on the street but you can only talk to one person at the time. What we would like to do is see everyone moving around during the day. A day in the life of neuro-city.
MedCrunch: How far are we from having this technology and what’s the challenge? Is there a budget-resource problem?
Rafael Yuste: I think we are far from achieving this technology because it’s the type of technology that cannot be developed by individual labs. It needs a coordinated effort across many laboratories and just like it happened in physics, in astronomy, or even in genomics, it comes to a time in the history of science where science needs to starts thinking big. When looking at physics in the 1940s people started building particle accelerators because physicists just couldn’t do it in their own labs. They had to think together and the particle accelerator encompasses work from 100 of labs and many governments fund them. The same thing happened in astronomy: you don’t have a little telescope in your lab anymore: as an astronomist or physicist you go to Hawaii or the canary islands and book time in a telescope where you have a few days of time and you take all your measurements and you go back to your lab and analyze it. Genomics the same thing: the human genome project. Individual labs sequence their own genes but it gets to a point where you need a larger effort to sequence the whole thing. I think neuroscience is growing to the point where it’s becoming a big science and you need big initiatives to tackle large-scale programs. We cannot continue with the old model of individual labs because the challenges are too large.
MedCrunch: Is the approval of the BRAIN project a major step for you as a neuroscientist?
Rafael Yuste: I think so. As a neuroscientist, this project could build the infrastructure for the future of my field. It is all about tool building. When you develop the tools so that people can tackle these neuro-circuit problems. There is a missing piece in the puzzle.
MedCrunch: People define consciousness in so many different ways: how would you define it as a neuroscientist?
Rafael Yuste: I don’t have a definition of consciousness. I don’t focus my interest on consciousness. I’m just working on low-key level problems. Slightly less complicated, but I hope that will get somewhere too.
MedCrunch: What’s your favorite book?
Rafael Yuste: Robinson Cruzo.
MedCrunch: Oh Really? So it’s not a hard science fact book?
Rafael Yuste: If I had to pick a science book it would be The History of the Microscope
MedCrunch: Why is that your favorite book?
Rafael Yuste: I read it when I was in grammar school, my mom gave it to me as a present and I captured my imagination of working with a microscope and solving diseases.
MedCrunch: If you had one advice you would give to young neuroscientists when they´re deciding to study this field, how would you help them in making this decision?
Rafael Yuste: Prepare yourself, for a multidisciplinary future, where you need to know physics, chemistry, mathematics, engineering, computer science as well as biology and medicine. All these disciplines will have critical contributions and gather a broad background.