Tangled neural fibers, knotted proteins, and clumps of degenerating neurons ravage the brains of Alzheimer’s sufferers. What causes these abnormalities? Why do they lead to dementia? Despite decades of research, very little is known about the brain, from the mechanisms of normal cognition and emotion to the causes of depression, addiction, and other diseases.
But since the 1990s, designated by the National Institute of Mental Health as the Decade of the Brain, there has been a global push to synthesize knowledge about the brain being gleaned by physiologists, computer modelers, imaging experts, and molecular biologists and to foster collaborations between these groups. The most recent example of this trend is MIT’s McGovern Institute for Brain Research, which officially opened on November 4.
When fully staffed, the Institute will house 16 principal investigators. One group of scientists will work to develop more sensitive and accurate imaging technologies, which can probe the activities of single neurons. Another team will investigate the impact of genetics on normal mental processes and disease. A third will use computational techniques to interpret large quantities of physiological data from live organisms in order to understand the neuronal bases of behavior.
Technology Review’s Assistant Editor Katherine Bourzac spoke with Robert Desimone, the Institute’s director, on the eve of its grand opening on November 4. Desimone studies the activity of neurons in the cortex in non-human primates, for example, how the brain decides which visual stimuli to privilege and which to ignore. Desimone hopes these studies will lead to insights about the neural mechanisms of perception, memory, and attention that characterize debilitating brain diseases such as Alzheimer’s.
Technology Review: What is the biggest challenge in brain science right now?
Robert Desimone: There’ve been tremendous advances in understanding the genetic basis of life, on the one hand, and also tremendous advances in brain images in intact human beings engaged in cognitive tests on the other hand. The challenge for neuroscience is bridging that gap – bridging from what goes on inside one cell in your brain to something that through a complex chain results in either normal cognition, thought, language, perception of beauty, on the one hand, or a terrible brain disorder on the other hand. That’s the challenge, understanding how you go from A to B.
TR: How do you plan to get there?
RD: The McGovern Institute was formed with faculty that have their research directed at all the things in between, going from molecules to mind, from Bob Horvitz who works on the genetics of the behavior of worms up through people like John Gabrieli and Nancy Kanwisher who do brain imaging studies in human beings and cognitive tests. And we have everyone in between: people doing computer modeling, people doing neurophysiology, people doing neuroanatomy, people looking at molecules and so on…People are willing to roll up their sleeves and collaborate with people who have expertise at different levels to make progress in understanding the mind.