A rather personal view of neuroinformatics.
by Mark van Rossum
Q: What is neuro-informatics?
Being a rather new field, the answer depends on who you ask.
The Edinburgh DTC has defined three core areas:
- Neural computation: Computing
paradigms inspired on the brain, and figuring out the computations in
I classify myself in this area.
- Neural engineering: Building
neuroscience inspired hardware and making neuron-silicon interfaces.
- Software systems: Developing
software to share data, simulator tools, and visualisation tools.
Q: I want to switch from physics/maths to neuroinfomatics. What
do I need?
First, you might feel more secure knowing that many people before
have made this
Clear scientific thinking is the most important skill. Next, I think,
are quantitative skills.
Typical tools I use for my work are: statistical physics, non-linear
Programming is an important secondary skill. However, it is important
to point out that excellent programming
by itself does not make good science. Progamming languages that are
used a lot in this field are: Python, C, C++, and Matlab.
Q: I already have a PhD. Should I first obtain a PhD in
neuroinformatics before I can work in this field, or can I go for a
postdoc position straight away?
Not necessarly. A large
part of the skills you learned
during your PhD (writing papers, scientific thinking, independent work)
will be also useful when you switch fields. However, there is a danger
that you will not get exposed to enough
neuroscience. You should consider this when looking for postdoc
positions. You need to be extra pro-active to study neuroscience
and to integrate into your new field.
Q: Do I have to do experiments?
No. Some researchers working in neuroinformatics never see a lab.
Others are captivated by studying the nervous system directly and turn
into full-time experimentalists.
Q: What attracts you in Neural Computation?
The nature of my personal fascination with neuroscience is not very
different than my fascination with physics. Physics tries to
figure out the
rules governing the physical world and tries to describe the world in
terms. This seems a crazy idea, but the weird thing is, of course,
that it works.
The realization that all that we see is made out of atoms, that
obeys the same laws, is awsome.
In neuroscience one tries to understand how the brain works, and
therefore what the basis is for our thinking. And, crazy as this
seem, in some cases we start to understand it. We know
roughly how the sensory systems and the
motor systems work, especially for the lower animals. The realization
all our thinking is done by those things called neurons is equally
as relativity theory.
What makes neural computation particularly fun is that many questions
remain still open and can be researched.
The field also moves very fast, so that a newcomer in the field has an
Q: What else should I do to decide on
an area of interest?
Talk to people in the field.
Conferences are a very good source of information, not only for
experts. Students in our programme are encouraged to visit conferences
and summer schools.
Read a few books. A first year student can easily asks question to
which nobody knows the answer. What is even
better, the student can try to learn the necessary techniques and
explore the issue for
themselves after a couple of months.
Q: How is Edinburgh as a city?
Edinburgh is beautiful medieval city with a lot of character.
Partly due to the large university it is very lively as well.
You might be surprised that it is actually not very cold in the winter.
Also the rainfall is not severe, less than Rome!
(The caveats are that it does not get hot in the summer, and that the
rain is horizontal...)
Living expenses: Expect to pay some 400 BP/month for a one bedroom
appartment for two.
Many students share flats reducing expenses.
Q: I would like to read more on neuroscience. What are good
There are many popular science books about the brain. Although not
always 100% accurate, they can be an interesting read and help you to
familiarize with the subject.
When you study at the DTC, we will send you an introductory
- "Neuroscience: Exploring the Brain" by Mark F. Bear, Barry W.
Connors, Michael A. Paradiso. ISBN: 0781739446
The next books are more extensive, but might be a bit overwhelming.
- "Principles of Neural Science" by Eric R. Kandel (Editor), James
H. Schwartz (Editor), Thomas M. Jessell. McGraw-Hill/Appleton
Lange; ISBN: 0838577016; 4th edition (January 5, 2000)
- "Fundamental Neuroscience" by Michael J. Zigmond (Editor), Floyd
E. Bloom (Editor), Story C. Landis (Editor), Larry R. Squire
(Editor). Academic Press; ISBN: 0127808701; 1st edition (January
- "Neurobiology" by Gordon M. Shepherd, Oxford University Press; ISBN:
0195088433; 3rd edition (June 1997)
- "From Neuron to Brain" by John G. Nicholls, Bruce G. Wallace, Paul
A. Fuchs, A. Robert. Martin Sinauer Assoc; ISBN: 0878934391; 4th
edition (January 15, 2001)
Computational modelling of neural systems:
- " Fundamentals of computational neuroscience"
Trappenberg, T. P. (2002). Oxford. Good, easiliy readable introduction.
- "The Computational Brain" by Patricia S. Churchland, Terrence
J. Sejnowski. MIT Press;
0262531208; Reprint edition (February 3, 1994)
- "Theoretical Neuroscience : Computational and Mathematical Modeling
of Neural Systems" by Peter Dayan, L. F. Abbott. MIT Press; ISBN:
0262041995; 1st edition (December 1, 2001) [Physics/math
- "Computational Explorations in Cognitive Neuroscience :
Understanding the Mind by Simulating the Brain" by Randall
C. O'Reilly, Yuko Munakata. MIT Press; ISBN:
0262650541; 1st edition (September 4, 2000)
- "Methods in Neuronal Modeling - 2nd Edition : From Ions to Networks"
by Christof Koch (Editor), Idan Segev (Editor). MIT Press; ISBN:
0262112310; 2nd edition (June 4, 1998)
- "Biophysics of Computation: Information Processing in Single
Neurons" by Christof Koch, Oxford University Press; ISBN:
0195104919; (November 1998)
- "Introduction to the theory of neural computation"
Hertz, J., Krogh, A., and Palmer, R. G. (1991). Perseus, Reading, MA.
Technical, but very thorough book
Journal articles can be found via www.pubmed.org