Jorge Sepulcre is faculty member and laboratory director at the Gordon Center for Medical Imaging, Massachusetts General Hospital, and an Associate Professor at Harvard Medical School. After completing MD and PhD degrees in his native Spain at the University of Navarra, he moved to Harvard University to continue his research in neuroscience and neurodegenerative diseases. Prof. Sepulcre is known for his contributions in developing cutting-edge connectomic approaches for human brain research. Prof. Sepulcre’s work has been funded by the NIH (National Institute on Aging, National Institute of Biomedical Imaging and Bioengineering) and Alzheimer’s Association. He is also a member of the International Advisory Board of CINET, whose first international workshop was held in November 2021 in Cáceres (Spain). Below you can read an extract of an interview that was carried out to him in the framework of this workshop. The video for this interview can be seen here.
Can empirical neuroscience benefit from the learning of philosophy?
In neuroscience (and specifically in my field, which is connectomics), the key word has always been “integration.” By definition, this implies the intersection between many levels of knowledge. Philosophy and the humanities provide us with a source of hypotheses and the generation of new ideas, which allows us to design new projects at the neuroscience level. For many years I worked at the Harvard Department of Psychology , and in those types of environments working in cognitive neuroscience there is a very open mindset to explore many fields with the common goal of understanding the human brain.
Which is the main ethical challenge you meet in neuroscientific researches?
Today, the great ethical challenge of neuroscience is to study how we can deal with the privacy of highly sensitive data, which are brain connectivity data and also genomic data integrated with them. There we can find a lot of predictive information. For example, if there is a genetic mutation or a system that is degenerating at the brain level, these data could be used for inappropriate purposes by certain private interests. This is going to be a continuing reality with the digitization of knowledge systems.
Why are CINET and the meetings it organizes important?
Usually, in our conferences we work at a level of information that is intended to be cross-cutting, because neuroscience encompasses many subfields. But it is amazing to also be able to put on the table philosophical questions that are essential for the human being, as we have done these days during the CINET workshop. This has allowed the experience of a debate between different disciplines such as philosophy and neuroscience.
What metaphor can work to understand the brain other than a computational metaphor?
The computational metaphor has been easy, because it is about the most complex artifacts that we have created culturally (computers) and the most complex organ that human beings possess (the brain). The brain has also often been compared to the universe. Even Cajal also fell into this temptation, and this is normal because it is usual to try to find comparisons between equals. But the brain is not a computer, and we should admit that it is a living, plastic organ, capable of adapting in real time. Computers have the resources to be able to do better computing, for example with multiple nodes, but they will never have that plasticity or that ability to generate hardware in real time, since they would have to produce new chips. In the end, the brain is unique. It is true that computers are going to be what we want them to be in order to solve human problems, but we should not live in the illusion or science fiction idea that computers could be brains or that brains behave computationally.