TR: What have been the Institute’s most important recent accomplishments in the field?
RD: We have a paper coming out from Ann Graybiel this month in Nature reporting how habits are formed and how habits are reinstated through the operations of neurons in the basal ganglia. This has tremendous importance for understanding how addictions form – for example, where people might become addicted to something, whether it’s a drug, cigarettes, or whatever. Then they give it up. But then through a new stimulus in the future they might have renewed cravings and reactivate that habit easily. Graybiel has discovered the neural basis for this in animal studies in the basal ganglia – the reactivation of habits that you thought might have been lost. A very important study.
We have another very important study that’s coming out in Science that’s based on the collaboration between two McGovern faculty members that I think really epitomizes the fact that you need people working at different levels of analysis. It’s between Jim DiCarlo and Tommy Poggio. Jim and Tommy are taking the data from Jim’s neural recordings in monkeys as they recognize patterns and using Tommy’s fantastic computer analytical methods for finding patterns and data. They have developed algorithms for figuring out what the monkey sees from the recordings in his brain.
This is the kind of thing that scientists really love to see. We have all these ideas about how a given neural system works, but it’s when you implement it in a real software system to show that it actually works, it works the way you think it might work, that you really have a strong test. Those are two core findings this month.
TR: What are some of the new or upcoming technologies being used for brain research?
RD: We’re opening the Martinos Imaging Center at the McGovern Institute with the building opening. We have the imaging center set up for three large instruments. The third [space] is being purposely left empty so that we can develop the technology of the future. We allow for future development based on work that will go on at MIT.
Even using the machines that we have, we have faculty like Alan Jasanoff, who’s in nuclear engineering. He’s working on not just imaging activity of brain cells, but imaging certain molecules that are trafficking between cells. He’ll be able to implement that work on the scanners that we have here.