Published on Feb 25, 2017

Despite library shelves sagging under the weight of neurology books, what we know about the brain so far is unfledged. MIT professor Edward Boyden explains how research teams are using expansion microscopy to map the densely packed neurons so we can understand how the brain is wired and apply that to human therapies. He also explains a technology called optogenetics (using light to control cells) that he hopes will do many things like restore eyesight, dial back Alzheimer’s disease, and shut down epilepsy seizures. Edward Boyden is a Hertz Foundation fellow and recipient of the prestigious Hertz Foundation Grant for graduate study in the applications of the physical, biological and engineering sciences. With the support of the Fannie and John Hertz Foundation, he pursued a PhD in neurosciences from Stanford University. The Hertz Foundation mission is to provide unique financial and fellowship support to the nation’s most remarkable PhD students in the hard sciences. Hertz Fellowships are among the most prestigious in the world, and the foundation has invested over $200 million in Hertz Fellows since 1963 (present value) and supported over 1,100 brilliant and creative young scientists, who have gone on to become Nobel laureates, high-ranking military personnel, astronauts, inventors, Silicon Valley leaders, and tenured university professors. For more information, visit hertzfoundation.org.

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Transcript: Over the last decade what we’ve been doing is trying to build tools that let us watch and control the operation of the brain. If we can understand the brain the way that we understand computers, for example, maybe we could understand the brain at such a level of detail that you could really comprehend how it generates things like thoughts and feelings, actions and sensations. For example, one technology that we’ve developed is called optogenetics.

In optogenetics we install a gene that encodes for a light sensitive protein in a cell or a set of cells in the brain. And then we can aim light at those cells down an optical fiber or with a scanning laser. So then you can play back activity to the brain. People have put artificial sensations into the brain. Can you figure out how a smell is represented for example. People can trigger emotions and some groups have done some pretty philosophically interesting experiments. So, for example, a group at Cal Tech has activated certain clusters of cells deep, deep in the brains of mice. And if it’s the right cluster you can actually trigger a mouse to become aggressive or violent. They’ll attack whatever’s next to them even if it’s like a rubber glove, right.

Full transcript here