SFN: Robert Wurtz's Lecture - A perspective

The neural basis of cognitive phenomena: are monkeys the ideal model?Sridhar Devarajan

In his presidential special lecture delivered to the Society for Neuroscience (Nov.15, 2010), Prof. Robert Wurtz highlighted the importance of non-human primates (monkeys) in cognitive neuroscience research. Monkeys can be trained on a variety of complex behaviors, and exhibit brain structures that are remarkably homologous to the human brain. While acknowledging that the choice of model organism should be driven by the research question, Prof. Wurtz underscored the special status of monkeys as the model of choice for understanding the neural basis of cognitive phenomena, such as attention.

While appealing, this argument begs the question: are such cognitive phenomena unique to primates? Take attention, for instance. Attention control in primates is known to be of two kinds: “goal-directed” and “stimulus-driven”. During the performance of a demanding task, we engage our attention on task-relevant stimuli in a “goal-directed” fashion. For instance, when driving to a friend’s place in an unfamiliar neighborhood, our attention is closely engaged in tracking street signs and other relevant landmarks, while ignoring irrelevant details of the landscape. On the other hand, unexpected and highly salient stimuli automatically draw (capture) our attention (“stimulus-driven”). For instance, a sudden, loud siren immediately draws our attention to the approaching fire truck, so we can get out of its way quickly, if need be.

How certain are we that similar kinds of attention control do not operate in the brains of other classes of (non-primate) animals? How about insects? Bees, for example, forage for nectar-bearing flowers matching a specific sensory template while carefully avoiding physically similar, but irrelevant objects. On the other hand, a sudden bright light, or a loud noise startles bees and quickly draws their (collective) attention to the source of the disturbance, as many a gardener who has accidentally disturbed a beehive could painfully attest. Hence, it is difficult to assert that similar forms of “goal-directed” and “stimulus-driven” attention control do not operate in the primitive insect brain.

Do insects share other “cognitive” phenomena besides "attention"? How about "motivation"? Symbolic communication? Learning? Memory? Perception? Where can we draw the line in the animal kingdom in terms of these phenomena? And where does this leave us with regard to the original question: Are monkeys indeed the ideal model for understanding the neural bases of cognitive phenomena?

Prof. Bob Wurtz’s assertion is relevant for cognitive neuroscientists who wish to understand the mechanistic basis of cognitive phenomena in the human brain. Indeed, such knowledge is fundamental to diagnose and treat cognitive disorders (such as schizophrenia, and autism) that afflict the human brain, and for which no cures are currently available. However, from a basic science perspective, Prof. Wurtz’s proposal leaves little room for understanding the emergent principles of brain circuits and their computations that give rise to cognitive phenomena, such as attention.

An analogy, might help illustrate this distinction. I have had the unique experience of trying to figure out the rules of American football by watching two professional teams compete. While I broadly understood that each team’s objective was to get the ball across the opponents' line at the other end of the field, the gameplay proceeded so quickly, and with such intricately complex maneuvers, that I completely failed to decipher the essential rules: the rules of passing, the concept of a “first-down” and the like. The fact that the players on the field appeared to  transform, without warning, into a completely different set of individuals did not help either. Perhaps, it would have been easier for me to figure out these essential rules, had I observed the simpler gameplay of middle schoolers less encumbered by advanced, and complex strategies.

A basic goal of cognitive neuroscience is to understand core principles by which cognitive phenomena arise in the intricate wetware of the brain. Prematurely restricting study of the neural basis of cognition to specific animal models raises the potential risk of "overfitting", of failing to unravel fundamental principles of neural circuit operation that give rise to such phenomena.