Imaging the living brain: An argument for ruthless reductionism from olfactory neurobiology

J Theor Biol. 2021 Mar 7;512:110560. doi: 10.1016/j.jtbi.2020.110560. Epub 2021 Jan 9.


Should theories of "higher-level" cognitive effects originate in "lower-level" molecular mechanisms? This paper supports reductionist explanations of sensory perception via molecular mechanisms in neurobiology. It shows that molecular and cellular mechanisms must constitute the material foundation to derive better theories and models for neuroscience. In support of "bottom-up theorizing", I explore the recent application of a new real-time molecular imaging technique (SCAPE microscopy) to mixture coding in olfaction. Seemingly emergent "higher-level" psychological effects in odor perception, irreducible to the physical stimulus, are linked back to underlying molecular mechanisms at the receptor level. The SCAPE study has notable theoretical impact. It provides a possible answer to the neurocomputational challenge in olfaction from combinatorial coding at the periphery: how does the brain discriminate different complex mixtures from widespread and overlapping receptor activation? The failure of previous reductionist structure-odor explanations is shown to reside in misconceptualizations of the critical causal elements involved. Causally fundamental features are not of parts independently of a mechanism. Components and their relevant features are units via their causal role within a mechanism. Here, new technologies allow revisiting our understanding of the ontology and levels of organization of a system.

MeSH terms

  • Brain
  • Neurobiology*
  • Odorants
  • Smell*