Interview with Professor György Buzsáki, M.D., Ph.D.

In this column, I ask neuroscience professors from around the world the same five questions. Read on to learn more about their research, careers and goals for neuroscience in the future.

Interview with Professor György Buzsáki, M.D., Ph.D.
Biggs Professor of Neural Sciences
NYU Neuroscience Institute
New York University, Langone Medical Center

He was the winner of the inaugural Brain Prize in 2011 together with Tamás Freund and Péter Somogyi for their work describing organization of neurons in the hippocampus and the cortex.
He is the author of Rhythms of the Brain, a book detailing the current neuroscientific understanding of brain rhythms, and of more than 300 peer reviewed papers. He is among the top 1% most-cited neuroscientists (“highly cited”) by Thomson Reuters.

1. What inspired you to pursue neuroscience as a career? 

Not ‘what’ but ‘who’ is the right question in my case, as is typical for many young people who choose a career in science. In our formative years we are in search for ourselves and may find a charismatic individual who changes our lives forever. In high school, I joined a radio ham club, learned the Morse code, memorized a special but simple communication language (known as Q code), learned about electronics, passed exams, got a license, built a transmitter and receiver, and set up a wire antenna between the chimneys of our house and the neighbor’s. Voila! I could communicate with any other ham radio around the globe. I dreamed about to be the first person to establish effective Earth–Moon–Earth radio communication. I outlined an entire road map for my future, which was quickly vetoed by my parents before graduation. The engineering school was in Budapest and we lived in Pécs, so I had to adjust to an affordable alternative. University of Pécs is one of the oldest in Europe (founded in 1367) but it had only Faculty of Law and Faculty of Medicine. I chose medicine. During the first-year anatomy class, I had to study the unending details of bones and ligaments, yet the problems of coding and communication kept bugging me most of the time. In my second year, while attending a physiology lecture about feedback control in the brain, I found my real future on that very day. The professor of that lecture, Endre Grastyán, talked about how brain circuits are kept at bay by feedback inhibition. I could not help but wonder about the parallels between the content of his lecture and feedback control in electronic circuits. I applied to become his apprentice and my life acquired a new meaning. Endre was the smartest and most generous person I have ever met. Even today, I try to emulate his personality as a mentor who leads with example and loyalty to his mentees. Although I earned a degree in medicine, I remained an engineer in my heart.

2. What do you think is the most important goal of neuroscience research? 

There are three arrogant answers to this question. First: I am working on it. Second: Why should I tell you? Third: If you figure it out, please let me know. But seriously. Discovery science does not work this way. If I have to pursue someone else’s idea, my motivation level is low and I start looking at my watch soon after lunch to see when I can leave the workplace. But when I am working on my own crazy ideas, I am thinking about them all the time. In my dreams, in the shower, everywhere. One of the most difficult challenges for a mentor is to present an idea to a student or postdoc in such a way the s/he will think it was her/his idea. Then they work hard on the problem. This self-motivation explains why discovery scientists are the hardest workers in society. Returning to your question, the most important goal in science is always your goal. For me, the most important questions are those that actually can be answered.

3. What are the main topics and goals of your research? 

To understand from the brain from inside out. Let me explain. Mainstream neuroscience today investigates the correspondences between outside world events and their neuronal ‘responses’ in the brain. This philosophy is based on a framework that we inherited mainly from the British Empiricists, who believed that the goal of the brain (i.e., the mind in their hands) is to perceive the true nature of the world. They invented or adopted words from religion or folk psychology, such as consciousness, free will, decision making, motivation, emotion, memory, planning, etc and with time we began to believe that these words are real actual entities with marked boundaries. Nascent neuroscience adopted this framework and outlined a road map to find ‘boxes’ in the brain and mechanisms for these dreamed up terms and with similar boundaries. As a result, you will read in your textbook that emotion = amygdala, memory = hippocampus, decision making = prefrontal cortex. Isn’t this naïve? Under this work strategy, what I call the ‘outside-in framework, the brain “processes information”, “represents” the world, it perceives, decides, and acts in that order. It is all about a passive brain that absorbs stuff.

In my laboratory, we work in the opposite direction. We advocate that the main function of the brain is to serve its body, generate actions and evaluate the consequences of those actions. This is true for all brains, small or large. But animals with small brains, such as an insect, can predict the future only in a simple environment and at a short time scale. Brains can do such tricks because they live in a world in which there are regularities and recurrences. These things can be learned and predicted. Animals with complex brains, such as humans, can predict the future in more complex environments and at a much longer time scale. Should I study math or engineering if I want to become a systems neuroscientist? In this framework, the brain does not process information. Instead, it makes it. There is no perception without action. Perceiving is doing. Unless we can show that brain’s response to an experimenter-presented stimulus is not only a cool correlation but is actually used by the other neurons in the brain, we have not accomplished much. In the lab, we are very much interested how internally generated, “self-organized” patterns in the brain acquire “meaning” through action, which therefore becomes what we call experience. If I managed to increase your curiosity, read this: G Buzsaki, The Brain from Inside Out. Oxford University Press, 2019.

4. What accomplishment do you think is the most important out of your own research? 

Major scientific discoveries typically become discoveries post hoc, after a long scrutiny by the community. Recognizing the importance of critical insights and synthesizing thoughts require long incubation and maturation because they are not immediately clear to others.
Scientist most often misrepresent their own discoveries. Johannes Kepler did not invent any laws. His observations became the four Kepler laws after Isaac Newton declared them as such. I am not better then Kepler. “Accomplishment” is a judgment of others. For me, the most important research is always the one I am working on. I cherish my pet discoveries, such as feed-forward inhibition, hippocampal “sharp wave ripple” as the neurophysiological mechanism of memory consolidation and action planning, and brain rhythms as the basis for neuronal syntax but the verdict of others may be different.

5. What do you hope to accomplish in the next 10 years in the field of neuroscience?

You like the word ‘accomplish’. Basic scientists are not driven to accomplish anything directly. It is the business of applied research, which I respect very much. But I chose to be discovery scientist to reveal the unexpected. Understanding and being able to explain the mechanisms of anything is a big reward for me. It would be cool to uncover the fundamental rules and constraints that allow the mammalian brain to grow >10,000-fold yet keeping the same temporal organizing mechanisms, as reflected by brain rhythms. How do new qualities, such as cognition, emerge from basically the same but more complex architectures?

Neuroscience is still the Wild West. A single individual may come up with a more important discovery than a large company. The motto in my lab is: “It is impossible to find nothing”, of course, provided that you work hard. Dear high schoolers, the doors are open for you. Some of you may be able to show us the way how to get “there.” The first task, of course, is to define where “there” is.

Bonus question: What is your advice to a teenager who wants to learn more about neuroscience?

First, figure out what really fascinates you and second, find out how to make a living while working on your fascinating ideas. Some people find their passion in high school, others much later. Scientists are blessed and cursed with a good dose of curiosity. The drive to get an answer can be as strong as hunger in some people. If you constantly feel uncomfortable unless you understand how things work, that urge sooner or later will lead you to the magic that you do not want to let go.