Mission & Research Goals
The Redwood Neuroscience Institute is a nonprofit research organization devoted to studying and promoting biologically accurate and mathematically well-founded models of memory and cognition.
Decades of past research have produced a wealth of biophysical, neuro-anatomical and neuro-physiological data about human brains but has not given us an accepted theory of cognition. No framework has been put forth that integrates all of this data into a satisfactory explanation of how our brains perceive and manipulate the world. It has been said that neuroscience is data rich and theory poor.
The scientists at the Redwood Neuroscience Institute (RNI) believe that an integrative theory of cognition is attainable with the factual knowledge we already possess. Our goal is to work toward such a theory in a scientifically responsible manner.
What is special about the RNI:
RNI pursues research at the crossroads of neurobiology and computational science. Studying integrative cognitive theories and models is a difficult career choice. First, it is interdisciplinary, and although many institutions try to foster interdisciplinary neuroscience, it is often difficult to work between disciplines. Second, since this field is not established (“pre-paradigm” in the words of Thomas Kuhn) it is not easy to guarantee a flow of published work that is the measure of a successful scientific career. The result is that although many scientists start their careers hoping to work towards a neural-based theory of cognition, many are unable to, or are discouraged from doing so.
RNI hopes to encourage people to enter and pursue this field through our in-house research, sponsoring of outside research, symposia, and public-relations efforts.
At the institute itself, the RNI offers a collaborative environment where everyone meets regularly and is working toward a common goal. The present scientific staff at the institute have backgrounds in physics, mathematics, or computer science, in addition to training in neuroscience. RNI fosters a team approach to science rather than a collection of independent efforts.
What we study:
Most of the work performed at RNI involves theory, mathematics and computer modeling. We do not perform animal or imaging studies but we actively seek cooperation with institutions that do. Our research revolves around several themes:
We are most interested in theories that are biologically realistic and testable. Therefore in addition to modeling our theories on computers, we seek to test our models through collaboration with outside laboratories, whether through imaging, psychophysics, or animal studies.
Most of the research at RNI involves mechanisms of memory in one form or another. The human brain has a very high memory capacity, and memory recall is integral to virtually all cognitive functions. Although the molecular and cellular mechanisms of synaptic modification have been the subject of intensive study and synaptic plasticity is believed to be the basis of long- and medium-term memory and perhaps also of short-term memory, we do not have mature theories of the large-scale memory architectures implemented in our brains, particularly in the neocortex. The mostly mathematical topics of sparse distributed memories and auto-associative memories go in that direction but have for many years remained low profile with few scientists studying them. Yet it appears that any integrative theory of cognition must be based on how our neocortex and other brain structures encode and recall memories in sparsely connected networks with auto-associative recall. A goal of RNI is to foster research of large-scale memory structures that are biologically inspired and realistic, with a particular interest in how these memories encode the spatiotemporal sequences that constitute real world experience.
Time, Representation, and Prediction
Another theme of the research pursued by the Redwood Neuroscience Institute is the role that time plays in natural data and how our brains both encode time-based information and make time-based statistical predictions about our environment. It is generally accepted that when we perceive the world, our brains make constant predictions about what we will experience next. It has been suggested that prediction is the main function of the neocortex. How these predictions are made and tested, and how real-time changing patterns are stored and recalled, whether via memory or some other mechanism, is a fertile area for study.
The Redwood Neuroscience Institute is a purely scientific organization. However, we expect technology and business opportunities to follow and we see commercialization not only inevitable but also desirable.
As we create models of cognitive function it will be natural to apply them to products in a commercial fashion. One day there will be a very large industry building intelligent memories and the products that incorporate them. From a science point of view this is desirable. Businesses based on a new technology attract investments and people to that technology. This is consistent with the institute's goals of promoting research in this field.
Of course we don't know whether commercial opportunities will occur relatively soon or in the distant future. The institute's policy is to focus on the science and to make sure that all scientific work is published broadly. The founding director of the institute, Jeff Hawkins, has successfully started two companies, Palm Computing and Handspring, and is supportive of researchers who want to pursue their research commercially.
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