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What is a computational neuroscientist?

October 12, 2011

This post is for those who don’t really understand the rest of this blog but would like to. A computational neuroscientist is someone who uses mathematical models to study topics in the field of neuroscience. Mathematical modeling is the process of using equations to simulate (mimic) what happens in the real world, and neuroscience deals with the biological nervous system, including the brain. So a computational neuroscientist works with models of the nervous system. Where does the term “computational” come from? This term is used because the equations of a model involve actual numbers that can be computed, much like the fact that properties of the nervous system can be measured (e.g. voltage, current, frequency).

Some computational neuroscientists are very much like neuroscientists in general who seek to better understand the nervous system. They may simply want to know more about how the nervous system works, or they may have a goal of treating diseases and injuries. Others may be interested in learning how to take advantage of the nervous system for other purposes such as building better robots or making smarter computers. Still others may have a philosophical interest in better understanding the basis of consciousness and the mind.

Unfortunately, some sources (such as Wikipedia) still describe computational neuroscience as a study of the information-processing abilities of the nervous system. This might suggest that the field only deals with topics like cognition, memory, and sensory coding. As most neuroscientists know, information processing includes more than this, and the field includes all other functions within the nervous system such as motor and autonomic control. So computational neuroscience is not distinguished by which part of the nervous system is being studied. Instead it is the tools that are used that are important. As a result, many researchers in the field come from areas other than neuroscience such as mathematics, computer science, and engineering.

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