Professor Brian Key

Professor

School of Biomedical Sciences
Faculty of Medicine
brian.key@uq.edu.au
+61 7 336 52955

Overview

How to build a brain—2.0

For 25 years I was sole chief investigator on 17 NHMRC-ARC project grants that provided funding to decipher the molecular & cellular bases of brain development and regeneration in fish, frogs and mice. This work culminated in the discovery of how to genetically construct an evolutionary novel axon tract in the embryonic brain. This is what I now call an easy problem.

Now my lab has turned its attention to the hardest problem in the natural sciences—how does the brain experience subjective feelings?

Together with my collaborator Professor Deborah Brown (Professor of Philosophy at UQ) we have approached this problem through the sensation of pain and model organisms. We advance the framework of the brain as an inference machine that generates models of its own internal processes (Key and Brown, 2018). When hierarchically arranged, the outputs of these models represent progressive levels of awareness that are antecedent to feelings (i.e. the brain’s experience of its own neural activity). We have proposed a parallel forwards model algorithm and to date have found that fish and molluscs lack the required neural architecture to execute this algorithm and therefore do not feel pain.

Key, B. and Brown, D. (2018) Designing brains for pain: Human to mollusc. Frontiers in physiology 9:1027.

Research Interests

  • brain development
  • fish pain

Qualifications

  • PhD, The University of Queensland
  • Bachelor of Human Movement Studies, The University of Queensland

Publications

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Grants

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Available Projects

  • We are seeking an Arts-Biomedical Science graduate to partake in this ambitious project.

    Arguments to the effect that certain animals do or do not have feelings, such as pain, are presumptive arguments. Like legal arguments, presumptive arguments are defeasible arguments, the conclusions of which are thought to be rationally acceptable on the balance of considerations (Walton 1996, 2011). Also like legal arguments, they invite paradoxical worries about how an argument can be both defeasible yet rationally binding (Walton et al, 2008). In legal contexts, we do not have the luxury of leaving questions of guilt or innocence hanging. A decision must be made. So too in matters pertaining to animal welfare, it is necessary to evaluate whether we have sufficient reason to decide whether a particular species of animal does or does not feel pain if we are to ensure that our treatment of that species is ethically appropriate.

    Each of the arguments in the animal consciousness debate can and has been evaluated on its own terms, but an interesting pattern emerges when viewed together as constituting a single dialogue involving multiple reasoners operating on divergent background assumptions and principles of reasoning. From this perspective, it can be seen where the blockages to consensus lie and what it would take to move the debate towards some form of closure so that decisions of importance to animal welfare could be undertaken with more confidence than they currently are. No meta-analysis of this debate as an instance of multi-agent reasoning has hitherto been undertaken. The overarching aim of this project is to conduct just such an analysis in an effort to identify principles that both sides of the debate might rationally agree upon and move the debate towards epistemic closure.

    The principal aims are:

    Aim 1. To reconstruct the debate about pain in non-human animals as an instance of multi-agent reasoning or dialogue to clarify precise points of agreement and disagreement,

    Aim 2. To argue for shared principles of reasoning drawing on available neuroscientific evidence in order to create avenues towards closure, and

    Aim 3. To address concerns about moral risk exceeding epistemic risk in judgements about non-human animal pain.

View all Available Projects

Publications

Featured Publications

Book Chapter

  • Brown, Deborah and Key, Brian (2020). Descartes’ dualism of mind and body in the development of psychological thought. Oxford research encyclopedia of psychology. (pp. 1-22) Oxford, United Kingdom: Oxford University Press. doi: 10.1093/acrefore/9780190236557.013.486

  • Key, Brian (2016). Development and regeneration of the vertebrate brain. Regenerative medicine-from protocol to patient. (pp. 249-290) edited by Gustav Steinhoff. Basel, Switzerland: Springer International Publishing. doi: 10.1007/978-3-319-27583-3_8

  • Key, B. (2003). Molecular development of the frog. Reproductive biology and phylogeny of Anura. (pp. 411-436) edited by Barrie G. M. Jamieson. Enfield, NH, U.S.A.: Science Publishers.

Journal Article

Conference Publication

Other Outputs

Grants (Administered at UQ)

PhD and MPhil Supervision

Current Supervision

  • Doctor Philosophy — Associate Advisor

    Other advisors:

Completed Supervision

Possible Research Projects

Note for students: The possible research projects listed on this page may not be comprehensive or up to date. Always feel free to contact the staff for more information, and also with your own research ideas.

  • We are seeking an Arts-Biomedical Science graduate to partake in this ambitious project.

    Arguments to the effect that certain animals do or do not have feelings, such as pain, are presumptive arguments. Like legal arguments, presumptive arguments are defeasible arguments, the conclusions of which are thought to be rationally acceptable on the balance of considerations (Walton 1996, 2011). Also like legal arguments, they invite paradoxical worries about how an argument can be both defeasible yet rationally binding (Walton et al, 2008). In legal contexts, we do not have the luxury of leaving questions of guilt or innocence hanging. A decision must be made. So too in matters pertaining to animal welfare, it is necessary to evaluate whether we have sufficient reason to decide whether a particular species of animal does or does not feel pain if we are to ensure that our treatment of that species is ethically appropriate.

    Each of the arguments in the animal consciousness debate can and has been evaluated on its own terms, but an interesting pattern emerges when viewed together as constituting a single dialogue involving multiple reasoners operating on divergent background assumptions and principles of reasoning. From this perspective, it can be seen where the blockages to consensus lie and what it would take to move the debate towards some form of closure so that decisions of importance to animal welfare could be undertaken with more confidence than they currently are. No meta-analysis of this debate as an instance of multi-agent reasoning has hitherto been undertaken. The overarching aim of this project is to conduct just such an analysis in an effort to identify principles that both sides of the debate might rationally agree upon and move the debate towards epistemic closure.

    The principal aims are:

    Aim 1. To reconstruct the debate about pain in non-human animals as an instance of multi-agent reasoning or dialogue to clarify precise points of agreement and disagreement,

    Aim 2. To argue for shared principles of reasoning drawing on available neuroscientific evidence in order to create avenues towards closure, and

    Aim 3. To address concerns about moral risk exceeding epistemic risk in judgements about non-human animal pain.