11 Young Neuroscientists Share Their Cutting-Edge Research

For our special series, “Brain Matters,” we asked 11 young neuroscientists from BU, Harvard and MIT to share what they’re working on — and why their research is important.

Bobby Kasthuri, of BU and Harvard, talks about building tools to map the brain’s quadrillion connections — a data set that could be bigger than any other ever collected.

Ben Bartelle, of MIT, develops sensors for neurotransmitters — chemical messengers in the brain — and compares them to a multibillion-member jazz ensemble.

Claire O’Connell, of MIT, discusses efforts to understand how vision works in the brain by using EyeWire, a game to map the brain’s connections that’s played by thousands of people.

Benjamin de Bivort, of Harvard, explores what fruit flies can tell us about personality, and also the random differences that develop between individuals and can’t be explained by genetics or environment.

Anna Beyeler, of MIT, describes research on brain circuits controlling anxiety and one experiment that used light to change a mouse’s level of anxiety.

Sam Ling, of BU, studies competition within the brain for visual awareness.

Emily Mackevicius, of MIT, studies the brain circuitry of a songbird’s song as a window onto how humans learn speech.

Neville Sanjana, of MIT and the Broad Institute, uses stem cell technology to study mutations that may cause autism in “neurons in a dish.”

Tyler Perrachione, of BU, studies how communication works in the human brain, and how it can go wrong.

Xue Han, a BU bioengineer, uses a technique called optogenetics — pulses of light that can control neurons — to study Parkinson’s disease.

Adam Bahrami, a Harvard evolutionary biologist, studies how genes affect a female worm’s decision to self reproduce using her own sperm or mate with a male — work that could cast light on human reproductive behavior.

Are you working in the field and have your own research to share? Please use this post’s comments section to share.

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  • Peter Cariani

    Its a great series you have in store for us, but it always astonishes me how public discussions about the brain almost always leave out the entire problem of how brains work as informational systems. Despite the temptation to sell neuroscience as the answer to diseases that plague us (the disease oriented approach to understanding biology), we also desperately need basic, long-range research that develops theories of the normally functioning brain.

    We are almost completely in the dark when it comes to the issue of the neural code — what is the nature of the signals of the system? What aspects of neural activity subserve informational functions (e.g. exactly how we perceive, think, feel, act, remember)? How is information embedded in trains of spikes?

    The neural coding problem is barely on the radar screens of contemporary neuroscience funding. A few years ago there was a big neuroscience exhibit at the Museum of Science in which spikes were never mentioned at all. I teach courses related to the neuroscience of music here in Boston, and there are always (otherwise well-educated and thoughtful) students who don’t understand that neurons send signals using trains of pulses (action potentials, spikes). Not understanding the role of spike trains in the brain is like not understanding the central role of DNA in the cell.

    Neuroscience today is data-rich and theory-poor, and much of this has to do with the scientific culture and the way most neuroscience is funded (through the NIH, which has a mandate to deal with disease). Typically in public discussions like this and in NIH mission statements, there is much attention to exciting new techniques (“new tools”) but almost nothing in terms of pending scientific problems or questions or theories. You will be hard pressed to find a roadmap of neuroscientific problems that we seek to solve in the next decade.

    Too often the quality of our science is measured by the cleverness of our techniques (the dominant value system of molecular biology), not the quality of the questions we are asking or answering (we want to think that this the dominant value system of physics).

    We don’t understand the nature of most neural codes, and from where I stand, it seems that we do not adequately understand even how one patch of cerebral cortex works in terms of the informational operations it is carrying out — how these subserve the functions of the system (perception, cognition, anticipation, memory, motor control and sequencing, etc).

    Neuroscience today is like biology before DNA as the vehicle for inheritance — until we understand the nature of the neural codes, we will be groping in the dark. Although molecular neuroscience and genetics may provide some clues, the only way to determine if some aspect of neural activity (say some patterning of spikes) is related to function is to observe specific correspondences between neural activity and that specific function (e.g. distinguishing between two pitches or two visual figures or two smells or two different memories). Only a very, very small proportion of neuroscientists are dealing with the specifics of informational function.

    I have worked on the coding of pitch (as in musical pitch) in the auditory system, and we found that the neural code involves temporal patterns of spikes on a population-wide scale, which does not fit easily into the dominant widespread (and usually unexamined) assumptions that the information is all embedded in connections (synaptic efficacies). We can accurately predict the pitch (within 1% of an octave) that you will hear on the basis of the temporal patternings of spikes in the auditory nerve, and the theory has some deep implications for musical consonance and harmony as well.

    We desperately need new theoretical paradigms, new approaches to thinking about brain function — it remains to be seen whether the current funding initiative will be open enough to fund alternative perspectives — there is extremely high pressure for intellectual conformity in the funding process — if one (ONE) member of a scientific review panel dislikes your theory or approach, it won’t get funded. Although the science that does get funded is of high quality, it tends to be incremental, a-theoretical, and controversy-avoiding. We need a more diversified research ecology, a better mix of incremental vs. innovative approaches, and a better social and intellectual mix of insiders and outsiders, alternate means of funding innovation.

    I think it would be useful in this radio series, if alongside all the neural diseases we hope to cure, there is some discussion about the fundamental outstanding problems that an adequate theory of the brain needs to solve. Some of these involve the nature of the neural code, the nature of the neurocomputational operations that subserve brain functions, the nature of the neural architectures that realize those operations, the nature of the memory “engram”, and the relation between neural activity and conscious awareness (the neural coding problem as it relates to the contents of our experience). In addition to boosting for neuroscience, it would be wonderful if some progress could be made regarding the public’s understanding of the science itself.

  • http://www.pheromones.com jvkohl

    Nutrient-dependent/pheromone-controlled adaptive evolution: a model
    Human pheromones and food odors: epigenetic influences on the socioaffective nature of evolved behaviors

    extend our 1996 model of cell type differentiation across species from microbes to man using the conserved molecular mechanisms of amino acid substitutions that link ecological variation and the metabolism of nutrients to species-specific pheromones that control the physiology of reproduction.

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