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Neuroscience in the Land of the Rising Sun

Japan is like no other country in the world, fusing the ancient and the modern seamlessly. As soon as I landed in Tokyo, I noted the presence of a girl in a kimono against the scintillating neon billboards and endless flow of salarymen. Dressed in a sakura print and wooden sandals, she exhibited a timeless beauty.

The Japanese capital delivers an incredible array of experiences, from festivals at shrines to crane games at arcades. Opportunities for scientific growth are also among the offerings in Japan. This summer, I had the chance to attend a weeklong lecture course in the greater Tokyo area called, “Exploring and Emulating the Brain,” organized and held by the RIKEN Brain Science Institute. In recapping my trip, I hope to make apparent the benefits of exploring your field in a new place.


My First Day

As I sat down for breakfast on the first day of the program, I was overcome with anxiety. Surrounded by strangers on the opposite side of the world, I moved to the rightmost corner of the lobby. I sipped on miso soup as I eavesdropped on awkward conversations about the brain and jetlag. Choosing not to socialize, I walked to the campus alone.

Too shy to initiate conversation, I sat in the lecture hall reading The New Yorker. Someone soon approached me holding out his ID badge. I put away my iPad and remembered that my primary goal for this course was to engage with fellow program participants. As aspiring young scientists, we build our professional networks and create job opportunities through communication and collaboration. Although it may not feel like it in the moment, an uncomfortable situation can help you grow as a person. The challenge is to get past that initial discomfort to learn something new. I was able to experience that this summer through the RIKEN BSI Summer Program.


Course Content

 Alongside my peers, I was able to learn from the noted neuroscientists in attendance. Each lecture was an hour and a half, which enabled professors to share their findings in great detail. Andrew Zalesky of the University of Melbourne, Australia gave the first of fifteen lectures. He presented on neural connectomics, which is the production of comprehensive structural maps. Many researchers question the usefulness of connectomes. “It’s like a road map that tells you where cars can drive, but does not tell you when or where cars are actually driving,” says Oliver Hobert of Columbia University. However, Zalesky elegantly argued that connectomics revealed topological properties shared across scales and species. One such property is hub nodes, which are brain regions that integrate information to enable efficient signaling.

Japan’s obsession with robots is not just a cliché. Pepper is the world’s first humanoid robot designed to read emotions. It was built by by Aldebaran Robotics and Softbank.

As neuroscience details the anatomy and activity of the brain, artificial intelligence seeks to develop a non-biological path to intelligence. In a discussion panel on neuroscience and artificial intelligence, we heard from prominent researchers such as Yoshua Bengio, Shun-ichi Amari, and Andrew Zalesky. My takeaway was that artificial intelligence is not the equal of natural intelligence in most important tasks for human cognition such as vision and natural language processing. However, this is not to say that artificial intelligence won’t ultimately achieve principles of natural intelligence.

Through this course, I learned how experimental and theoretical research could benefit each other. Speakers such as Terrence Sejnowski created a model based on experimental data to generate hypotheses. His computational background enabled him to bring new approaches to problems that had been accepted in sleep research. With data-driven predictions, perhaps experimental neuroscience can accelerate more rapidly and we can come closer to understanding what makes us human.



My greatest takeaway from this course was the incredible people I met. I had the opportunity to interact with people from all over the world aspiring to become scientists. Through conversations with graduate students and post-doctoral researchers, I was also able to learn about life as a scientist in Japan.

After each day of lectures, we set out to explore Tokyo in the evenings and participated in the optional Tokyo tour at the conclusion of the program. From feeling at home in the hipster district of Shimokitazawa to being overwhelmed by the pachinko parlors of Akihabara, it was incredibly rewarding to experience Tokyo in all its flavors. The RIKEN Brain Science Institute Summer Program surpassed my expectations and I highly recommend it. I encourage fellow early career researchers to immerse themselves in a new culture while pursuing science.



Salaryman. (2017, July 13). Retrieved July 31, 2017, from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Salaryman

RIKEN Brain Science Institute Summer Programs Poster, http://www.brain.riken.jp/en/asset/img/summer/Poster2017.pdf

Daniel Mediati, Science is the Name but Collaboration is the Game, April 14, 2017. https://blogs.plos.org/thestudentblog/2017/04/14/science-is-the-name-but-collaboration-is-the-game/.

RIKEN Brain Science Institute, http://www.brain.riken.jp/en/.

Dr. Andrew Zalesky, People: Department of Electrical and Electronic Engineering, University of Melbourne. Retrieved July 31, 2017, from http://www.ee.unimelb.edu.au/people/staff.php?person_ID=24599

PLOS One Connectomics http://journals.plos.org/plosone/browse/connectomics

Oliver Hobert Lab Website, Columbia University, http://hobertlab.org/.

Yoshua Bengio. Retrieved July 31, 2017, from http://www.iro.umontreal.ca/~bengioy/yoshua_en/

Shun-ichi Amari, RIKEN Brain Science Institute, http://www.brain.riken.jp/labs/mns/amari/home-E.html.

The Sejnowski Lab, http://cnl.salk.edu/.

Photographs provided by the author.


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