Traditionally theoretical computer science has played the role of a scout that explores novel approaches towards computing well in advance of other sciences. This did also occur in the case of neural computation. Von Neumann's book The Computer and the Brain [von Neumann, 1958] raised over 40 years ago already several of the essential issues for understanding neural computation from the point of view of a theoretical computer scientist. Even earlier, the seminal paper A logical calculus of the ideas immanent in nervous activity [McCulloch and Pitts, 1943] provided an abstract circuit model that reflects some essential aspects of computation in biological neural systems, but which is at the same time sufficiently simple and formally precise so that it can be investigated theoretically. The paper A Theory of the Learnable by Valiant [Valiant, 1984] initiated research in theoretical computer science on another essential ingredient of neural systems: learning capabilities. This created the new area of computational learning theory in theoretical computer science. It made a number of important contributions to applied machine learning, but so far had little impact on the investigation of learning in neural systems. Another mathematically rigorous approach towards understanding learning, reinforcement learning (see [Bertsekas and Tsitsiklis, 1996,Sutton and Barto, 1998]), has been more successful in this regard. But so far reinforcement learning has attracted little attention in theoretical computer science.
Altogether we would be very happy if we could discern a slow but steady development where theoretical computer science is gaining increasing impact on the investigation of computing and learning in neural systems. Unfortunately there is little support for such optimism , and concerted efforts would be needed to change this situation. An inspection of any recent issue of leading journals (e.g. Neural Computation, Network: Computation in Neural Systems) or conference proceedings in this area (e.g. of the Annual NIPS, with proceedings published by MIT Press under the title Advances in Neural Information Processing Systems) shows that there exists a large amount of interdisciplinary work on neural computation, with a fair number of theoretical contributions. But so far this theoretical work has been dominated by approaches from theoretical physics, information theory, and statistics. One might speculate that this results from the fact that theoretical computer science has become to a large extent ``method-driven'', i.e., we typically look for new problems that can be solved by variations and extensions of a body of fascinating mathematical tools that we have come to like, and that form the heart of current theoretical computer science. In contrast, to have a serious impact on research in neural computation, a theoretical researcher has to become also ``problem-driven'', i.e., we have to employ and develop those mathematical concepts and tools that are most adequate for the problem at hand.
One of the main obstacles for a theoretical computer scientist who is ready to tackle theoretical problems about computing and learning in biological neural systems is the diversity of models, and the diversity of opinions among leading neuroscientists regarding the right way to understand computations in the brain. This concerns especially the first questions that a theoretical computer scientist is likely to ask:
Yet another difficulty arises from the fact that neuroscientists employ different models for different levels of detail, starting from models for the whole brain, going down to neural columns and circuits, further down to neurons and synapses, and finally down to the molecular ``switches'', e.g. the diverse variety of ion - channels and receptors that control the flow of charged particles in neurons and synapses. Unfortunately it is still not known, which of these levels is the right one for understanding neural computation and learning. It is quite possible that none of these levels is ``the right one'' and that the interplay of several of these levels of modeling is essential. On the other hand this family of models with different levels of temporal and spatial resolution provides a rich source of interesting research problems for theoretical computer scientists: