Connectomes as constitutively epistemic objects: critical perspectives on modeling in current neuroanatomy

In Progress in Brain Research Vol 233: The Making and Use of Animal Models in Neuroscience and Psychiatry. Amsterdam: pp. 149–177 (2017)
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in a nervous system of a given species. This chapter provides a critical perspective on the role of connectomes in neuroscientific practice and asks how the connectomic approach fits into a larger context in which network thinking permeates technology, infrastructure, social life, and the economy. In the first part of this chapter, we argue that, seen from the perspective of ongoing research, the notion of connectomes as “complete descriptions” is misguided. Our argument combines Rachel Ankeny’s analysis of neuroanatomical wiring diagrams as “descriptive models” with Hans-Joerg Rheinberger’s notion of “epistemic objects,” i.e., targets of research that are still partially unknown. Combining these aspects we conclude that connectomes are constitutively epistemic objects: there just is no way to turn them into permanent and complete technical standards because the possibilities to map connection properties under different modeling assumptions are potentially inexhaustible. In the second part of the chapter, we use this understanding of connectomes as constitutively epistemic objects in order to critically assess the historical and political dimensions of current neuroscientific research. We argue that connectomics shows how the notion of the “brain as a network” has become the dominant metaphor of contemporary brain research. We further point out that this metaphor shares (potentially problematic) affinities to the form of contemporary “network societies.” We close by pointing out how the relation between connectomes and networks in society could be used in a more fruitful manner.
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