Ross, Lauren N. and Dani S. Bassett

A fundamental goal of research in neuroscience is to uncover the causal structure of the brain. This focus on causation makes sense, because causal information can provide explanations of brain function and identify reliable targets with which to understand cognitive function and prevent or change neurological conditions and psychiatric disorders. In this research, one of the most frequently used causal concepts is 'mechanism' - this is seen in the literature and language of the field, in grant and funding inquiries that specify what research is supported, and in journal guidelines on which contributions are considered for publication. In these contexts, mechanisms are commonly tied to expressions of the main aims of the field and cited as the 'fundamental', 'foundational' and/or 'basic' unit for understanding the brain. Despite its common usage and perceived importance, mechanism is used in different ways that are rarely distinguished. Given that this concept is defined in different ways throughout the field - and that there is often no clarification of which definition is intended - there remains a marked ambiguity about the fundamental goals, orientation and principles of the field. Here we provide an overview of causation and mechanism from the perspectives of neuroscience and philosophy of science, in order to address these challenges. 'Mechanism' is a frequently used causal concept in neuroscience but can have different meanings that are often not specified. In this Review, Ross and Bassett explore these different meanings and the challenges associated with the variable usage of this term before discussing how these challenges may be met.