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    Emery Brown wins a share of 2022 Gruber Neuroscience Prize

    The Gruber Foundation announced on May 17 that Emery N. Brown, the Edward Hood Taplin Professor of Medical Engineering and Computational Neuroscience at MIT, has won the 2022 Gruber Neuroscience Prize along with neurophysicists Laurence Abbott of Columbia University, Terrence Sejnowski of the Salk Institute for Biological Studies, and Haim Sompolinsky of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.

    The foundation says it honored the four recipients for their influential contributions to the fields of computational and theoretical neuroscience. As datasets have grown ever larger and more complex, these fields have increasingly helped scientists unravel the mysteries of how the brain functions in both health and disease. The prize, which includes a total $500,000 award, will be presented in San Diego, California, on Nov. 13 at the annual meeting of the Society for Neuroscience.

    “These four remarkable scientists have applied their expertise in mathematical and statistical analysis, physics, and machine learning to create theories, mathematical models, and tools that have greatly advanced how we study and understand the brain,” says Joshua Sanes, professor of molecular and cellular biology and founding director of the Center for Brain Science at Harvard University and member of the selection advisory board to the prize. “Their insights and research have not only transformed how experimental neuroscientists do their research, but also are leading to promising new ways of providing clinical care.”

    Brown, who is an investigator in The Picower Institute for Learning and Memory and the Institute for Medical Engineering and Science at MIT, an anesthesiologist at Massachusetts General Hospital, and a professor at Harvard Medical School, says: “It is a pleasant surprise and tremendous honor to be named a co-recipient of the 2022 Gruber Prize in Neuroscience. I am especially honored to share this award with three luminaries in computational and theoretical neuroscience.”

    Brown’s early groundbreaking findings in neuroscience included a novel algorithm that decodes the position of an animal by observing the activity of a small group of place cells in the animal’s brain, a discovery he made while working with fellow Picower Institute investigator Matt Wilson in the 1990s. The resulting state-space algorithm for point processes not only offered much better decoding with fewer neurons than previous approaches, but it also established a new framework for specifying dynamically the relationship between the spike trains (the timing sequence of firing neurons) in the brain and factors from the outside world.

    “One of the basic questions at the time was whether an animal holds a representation of where it is in its mind — in the hippocampus,” Brown says. “We were able to show that it did, and we could show that with only 30 neurons.”

    After introducing this state-space paradigm to neuroscience, Brown went on to refine the original idea and apply it to other dynamic situations — to simultaneously track neural activity and learning, for example, and to define with precision anesthesia-induced loss of consciousness, as well as its subsequent recovery. In the early 2000s, Brown put together a team to specifically study anesthesia’s effects on the brain.

    Through experimental research and mathematical modeling, Brown and his team showed that the altered arousal states produced by the main classes of anesthesia medications can be characterized by analyzing the oscillatory patterns observed in the EEG along with the locations of their molecular targets, and the anatomy and physiology of the neural circuits that connect those locations. He has established, including in recent papers with Picower Professor Earl K. Miller, that a principal way in which anesthetics produce unconsciousness is by producing oscillations that impair how different brain regions communicate with each other.

    The result of Brown’s research has been a new paradigm for brain monitoring during general anesthesia for surgery, one that allows an anesthesiologist to dose the patient based on EEG readouts (neural oscillations) of the patient’s anesthetic state rather than purely on vital sign responses. This pioneering approach promises to revolutionize how anesthesia medications are delivered to patients, and also shed light on other altered states of arousal such as sleep and coma.

    To advance that vision, Brown recently discussed how he is working to develop a new research center at MIT and MGH to further integrate anesthesiology with neuroscience research. The Brain Arousal State Control Innovation Center, he said, would not only advance anesthesiology care but also harness insights gained from anesthesiology research to improve other aspects of clinical neuroscience.

    “By demonstrating that physics and mathematics can make an enormous contribution to neuroscience, doctors Abbott, Brown, Sejnowski, and Sompolinsky have inspired an entire new generation of physicists and other quantitative scientists to follow in their footsteps,” says Frances Jensen, professor and chair of the Department of Neurology and co-director of the Penn Medicine Translational Neuroscience Center within the Perelman School of Medicine at the University of Pennsylvania, and chair of the Selection Advisory Board to the prize. “The ramifications for neuroscience have been broad and profound. It is a great pleasure to be honoring each of them with this prestigious award.”

    This report was adapted from materials provided by the Gruber Foundation. More

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    What words can convey

    From search engines to voice assistants, computers are getting better at understanding what we mean. That’s thanks to language-processing programs that make sense of a staggering number of words, without ever being told explicitly what those words mean. Such programs infer meaning instead through statistics — and a new study reveals that this computational approach can assign many kinds of information to a single word, just like the human brain.

    The study, published April 14 in the journal Nature Human Behavior, was co-led by Gabriel Grand, a graduate student in electrical engineering and computer science who is affiliated with MIT’s Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory, and Idan Blank PhD ’16, an assistant professor at the University of California at Los Angeles. The work was supervised by McGovern Institute for Brain Research investigator Ev Fedorenko, a cognitive neuroscientist who studies how the human brain uses and understands language, and Francisco Pereira at the National Institute of Mental Health. Fedorenko says the rich knowledge her team was able to find within computational language models demonstrates just how much can be learned about the world through language alone.

    The research team began its analysis of statistics-based language processing models in 2015, when the approach was new. Such models derive meaning by analyzing how often pairs of words co-occur in texts and using those relationships to assess the similarities of words’ meanings. For example, such a program might conclude that “bread” and “apple” are more similar to one another than they are to “notebook,” because “bread” and “apple” are often found in proximity to words like “eat” or “snack,” whereas “notebook” is not.

    The models were clearly good at measuring words’ overall similarity to one another. But most words carry many kinds of information, and their similarities depend on which qualities are being evaluated. “Humans can come up with all these different mental scales to help organize their understanding of words,” explains Grand, a former undergraduate researcher in the Fedorenko lab. For example, he says, “dolphins and alligators might be similar in size, but one is much more dangerous than the other.”

    Grand and Blank, who was then a graduate student at the McGovern Institute, wanted to know whether the models captured that same nuance. And if they did, how was the information organized?

    To learn how the information in such a model stacked up to humans’ understanding of words, the team first asked human volunteers to score words along many different scales: Were the concepts those words conveyed big or small, safe or dangerous, wet or dry? Then, having mapped where people position different words along these scales, they looked to see whether language processing models did the same.

    Grand explains that distributional semantic models use co-occurrence statistics to organize words into a huge, multidimensional matrix. The more similar words are to one another, the closer they are within that space. The dimensions of the space are vast, and there is no inherent meaning built into its structure. “In these word embeddings, there are hundreds of dimensions, and we have no idea what any dimension means,” he says. “We’re really trying to peer into this black box and say, ‘is there structure in here?’”

    Specifically, they asked whether the semantic scales they had asked their volunteers use were represented in the model. So they looked to see where words in the space lined up along vectors defined by the extremes of those scales. Where did dolphins and tigers fall on line from “big” to “small,” for example? And were they closer together along that line than they were on a line representing danger (“safe” to “dangerous”)?

    Across more than 50 sets of world categories and semantic scales, they found that the model had organized words very much like the human volunteers. Dolphins and tigers were judged to be similar in terms of size, but far apart on scales measuring danger or wetness. The model had organized the words in a way that represented many kinds of meaning — and it had done so based entirely on the words’ co-occurrences.

    That, Fedorenko says, tells us something about the power of language. “The fact that we can recover so much of this rich semantic information from just these simple word co-occurrence statistics suggests that this is one very powerful source of learning about things that you may not even have direct perceptual experience with.” More

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    Seven from MIT elected to American Academy of Arts and Sciences for 2022

    Seven MIT faculty members are among more than 250 leaders from academia, the arts, industry, public policy, and research elected to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, the academy announced Thursday.

    One of the nation’s most prestigious honorary societies, the academy is also a leading center for independent policy research. Members contribute to academy publications, as well as studies of science and technology policy, energy and global security, social policy and American institutions, the humanities and culture, and education.

    Those elected from MIT this year are:

    Alberto Abadie, professor of economics and associate director of the Institute for Data, Systems, and Society
    Regina Barzilay, the School of Engineering Distinguished Professor for AI and Health
    Roman Bezrukavnikov, professor of mathematics
    Michale S. Fee, the Glen V. and Phyllis F. Dorflinger Professor and head of the Department of Brain and Cognitive Sciences
    Dina Katabi, the Thuan and Nicole Pham Professor
    Ronald T. Raines, the Roger and Georges Firmenich Professor of Natural Products Chemistry
    Rebecca R. Saxe, the John W. Jarve Professor of Brain and Cognitive Sciences

    “We are celebrating a depth of achievements in a breadth of areas,” says David Oxtoby, president of the American Academy. “These individuals excel in ways that excite us and inspire us at a time when recognizing excellence, commending expertise, and working toward the common good is absolutely essential to realizing a better future.”

    Since its founding in 1780, the academy has elected leading thinkers from each generation, including George Washington and Benjamin Franklin in the 18th century, Maria Mitchell and Daniel Webster in the 19th century, and Toni Morrison and Albert Einstein in the 20th century. The current membership includes more than 250 Nobel and Pulitzer Prize winners. More

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    Estimating the informativeness of data

    Not all data are created equal. But how much information is any piece of data likely to contain? This question is central to medical testing, designing scientific experiments, and even to everyday human learning and thinking. MIT researchers have developed a new way to solve this problem, opening up new applications in medicine, scientific discovery, cognitive science, and artificial intelligence.

    In theory, the 1948 paper, “A Mathematical Theory of Communication,” by the late MIT Professor Emeritus Claude Shannon answered this question definitively. One of Shannon’s breakthrough results is the idea of entropy, which lets us quantify the amount of information inherent in any random object, including random variables that model observed data. Shannon’s results created the foundations of information theory and modern telecommunications. The concept of entropy has also proven central to computer science and machine learning.

    The challenge of estimating entropy

    Unfortunately, the use of Shannon’s formula can quickly become computationally intractable. It requires precisely calculating the probability of the data, which in turn requires calculating every possible way the data could have arisen under a probabilistic model. If the data-generating process is very simple — for example, a single toss of a coin or roll of a loaded die — then calculating entropies is straightforward. But consider the problem of medical testing, where a positive test result is the result of hundreds of interacting variables, all unknown. With just 10 unknowns, there are already 1,000 possible explanations for the data. With a few hundred, there are more possible explanations than atoms in the known universe, which makes calculating the entropy exactly an unmanageable problem.

    MIT researchers have developed a new method to estimate good approximations to many information quantities such as Shannon entropy by using probabilistic inference. The work appears in a paper presented at AISTATS 2022 by authors Feras Saad ’16, MEng ’16, a PhD candidate in electrical engineering and computer science; Marco-Cusumano Towner PhD ’21; and Vikash Mansinghka ’05, MEng ’09, PhD ’09, a principal research scientist in the Department of Brain and Cognitive Sciences. The key insight is, rather than enumerate all explanations, to instead use probabilistic inference algorithms to first infer which explanations are probable and then use these probable explanations to construct high-quality entropy estimates. The paper shows that this inference-based approach can be much faster and more accurate than previous approaches.

    Estimating entropy and information in a probabilistic model is fundamentally hard because it often requires solving a high-dimensional integration problem. Many previous works have developed estimators of these quantities for certain special cases, but the new estimators of entropy via inference (EEVI) offer the first approach that can deliver sharp upper and lower bounds on a broad set of information-theoretic quantities. An upper and lower bound means that although we don’t know the true entropy, we can get a number that is smaller than it and a number that is higher than it.

    “The upper and lower bounds on entropy delivered by our method are particularly useful for three reasons,” says Saad. “First, the difference between the upper and lower bounds gives a quantitative sense of how confident we should be about the estimates. Second, by using more computational effort we can drive the difference between the two bounds to zero, which ‘squeezes’ the true value with a high degree of accuracy. Third, we can compose these bounds to form estimates of many other quantities that tell us how informative different variables in a model are of one another.”

    Solving fundamental problems with data-driven expert systems

    Saad says he is most excited about the possibility that this method gives for querying probabilistic models in areas like machine-assisted medical diagnoses. He says one goal of the EEVI method is to be able to solve new queries using rich generative models for things like liver disease and diabetes that have already been developed by experts in the medical domain. For example, suppose we have a patient with a set of observed attributes (height, weight, age, etc.) and observed symptoms (nausea, blood pressure, etc.). Given these attributes and symptoms, EEVI can be used to help determine which medical tests for symptoms the physician should conduct to maximize information about the absence or presence of a given liver disease (like cirrhosis or primary biliary cholangitis).

    For insulin diagnosis, the authors showed how to use the method for computing optimal times to take blood glucose measurements that maximize information about a patient’s insulin sensitivity, given an expert-built probabilistic model of insulin metabolism and the patient’s personalized meal and medication schedule. As routine medical tracking like glucose monitoring moves away from doctor’s offices and toward wearable devices, there are even more opportunities to improve data acquisition, if the value of the data can be estimated accurately in advance.

    Vikash Mansinghka, senior author on the paper, adds, “We’ve shown that probabilistic inference algorithms can be used to estimate rigorous bounds on information measures that AI engineers often think of as intractable to calculate. This opens up many new applications. It also shows that inference may be more computationally fundamental than we thought. It also helps to explain how human minds might be able to estimate the value of information so pervasively, as a central building block of everyday cognition, and help us engineer AI expert systems that have these capabilities.”

    The paper, “Estimators of Entropy and Information via Inference in Probabilistic Models,” was presented at AISTATS 2022. More

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    Emery Brown earns American Institute for Medical and Biological Engineering Pierre Galletti Award

    The American Institute for Medical and Biological Engineering has awarded its highest honor this year to Emery N. Brown, the Edward Hood Taplin Professor of Computational Neuroscience and Health Sciences and Technology in The Picower Institute for Learning and Memory and the Institute for Medical Engineering and Science at MIT.

    Brown, who is also an anesthesiologist at Massachusetts General Hospital and the Warren M. Zapol Professor at Harvard Medical School, received the 2022 Pierre M. Galletti Award during the national organization’s Annual Event held on March 25.

    For decades, Brown’s lab has uniquely unified three fields: neuroscience, statistics, and anesthesiology. He is renowned for the development of statistical methods and signal-processing algorithms to enable and improve analysis of neural activity measurements. The work has had numerous applications including studies of learning and memory, brain-computer interfaces, and systems neuroscience. He has also pioneered investigations of how general anesthetic drugs work in the brain to induce and maintain simultaneous but reversible states of unconsciousness, amnesia, immobility, and analgesia. Building on these improvements in fundamental understanding, his lab engineers systems to improve monitoring of patient state and anesthetic dosing during surgery. Optimizing doses of general anesthetic drugs can improve patient care in many ways, including by minimizing side effects such as post-operative delirium and by improving post-operative pain management.

    AIMBE said Brown earned the award in recognition of his “significant contributions to neuroscience data analysis and for characterizing the neurophysiology of anesthesia-induced unconsciousness and demonstrating how it can be reliably monitored in real time using electroencephalogram recordings.”

    Brown, who is also a faculty member in MIT’s Department of Brain and Cognitive Sciences, is now working to develop a research center at MIT dedicated to taking neuroscience-based approaches to advance anesthesiology.

    “I am extremely honored and grateful to the AIMBE for choosing me to receive the 2022 Galletti Award in recognition of my research deciphering the neuroscience of how anesthetics work,” he says. “I would like to express my gratitude to my collaborators, post-doctoral fellows, students, research assistants, and clinical coordinators who have made this possible.” More

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    Can machine-learning models overcome biased datasets?

    Artificial intelligence systems may be able to complete tasks quickly, but that doesn’t mean they always do so fairly. If the datasets used to train machine-learning models contain biased data, it is likely the system could exhibit that same bias when it makes decisions in practice.

    For instance, if a dataset contains mostly images of white men, then a facial-recognition model trained with these data may be less accurate for women or people with different skin tones.

    A group of researchers at MIT, in collaboration with researchers at Harvard University and Fujitsu Ltd., sought to understand when and how a machine-learning model is capable of overcoming this kind of dataset bias. They used an approach from neuroscience to study how training data affects whether an artificial neural network can learn to recognize objects it has not seen before. A neural network is a machine-learning model that mimics the human brain in the way it contains layers of interconnected nodes, or “neurons,” that process data.

    The new results show that diversity in training data has a major influence on whether a neural network is able to overcome bias, but at the same time dataset diversity can degrade the network’s performance. They also show that how a neural network is trained, and the specific types of neurons that emerge during the training process, can play a major role in whether it is able to overcome a biased dataset.

    “A neural network can overcome dataset bias, which is encouraging. But the main takeaway here is that we need to take into account data diversity. We need to stop thinking that if you just collect a ton of raw data, that is going to get you somewhere. We need to be very careful about how we design datasets in the first place,” says Xavier Boix, a research scientist in the Department of Brain and Cognitive Sciences (BCS) and the Center for Brains, Minds, and Machines (CBMM), and senior author of the paper.  

    Co-authors include former MIT graduate students Timothy Henry, Jamell Dozier, Helen Ho, Nishchal Bhandari, and Spandan Madan, a corresponding author who is currently pursuing a PhD at Harvard; Tomotake Sasaki, a former visiting scientist now a senior researcher at Fujitsu Research; Frédo Durand, a professor of electrical engineering and computer science at MIT and a member of the Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory; and Hanspeter Pfister, the An Wang Professor of Computer Science at the Harvard School of Enginering and Applied Sciences. The research appears today in Nature Machine Intelligence.

    Thinking like a neuroscientist

    Boix and his colleagues approached the problem of dataset bias by thinking like neuroscientists. In neuroscience, Boix explains, it is common to use controlled datasets in experiments, meaning a dataset in which the researchers know as much as possible about the information it contains.

    The team built datasets that contained images of different objects in varied poses, and carefully controlled the combinations so some datasets had more diversity than others. In this case, a dataset had less diversity if it contains more images that show objects from only one viewpoint. A more diverse dataset had more images showing objects from multiple viewpoints. Each dataset contained the same number of images.

    The researchers used these carefully constructed datasets to train a neural network for image classification, and then studied how well it was able to identify objects from viewpoints the network did not see during training (known as an out-of-distribution combination). 

    For example, if researchers are training a model to classify cars in images, they want the model to learn what different cars look like. But if every Ford Thunderbird in the training dataset is shown from the front, when the trained model is given an image of a Ford Thunderbird shot from the side, it may misclassify it, even if it was trained on millions of car photos.

    The researchers found that if the dataset is more diverse — if more images show objects from different viewpoints — the network is better able to generalize to new images or viewpoints. Data diversity is key to overcoming bias, Boix says.

    “But it is not like more data diversity is always better; there is a tension here. When the neural network gets better at recognizing new things it hasn’t seen, then it will become harder for it to recognize things it has already seen,” he says.

    Testing training methods

    The researchers also studied methods for training the neural network.

    In machine learning, it is common to train a network to perform multiple tasks at the same time. The idea is that if a relationship exists between the tasks, the network will learn to perform each one better if it learns them together.

    But the researchers found the opposite to be true — a model trained separately for each task was able to overcome bias far better than a model trained for both tasks together.

    “The results were really striking. In fact, the first time we did this experiment, we thought it was a bug. It took us several weeks to realize it was a real result because it was so unexpected,” he says.

    They dove deeper inside the neural networks to understand why this occurs.

    They found that neuron specialization seems to play a major role. When the neural network is trained to recognize objects in images, it appears that two types of neurons emerge — one that specializes in recognizing the object category and another that specializes in recognizing the viewpoint.

    When the network is trained to perform tasks separately, those specialized neurons are more prominent, Boix explains. But if a network is trained to do both tasks simultaneously, some neurons become diluted and don’t specialize for one task. These unspecialized neurons are more likely to get confused, he says.

    “But the next question now is, how did these neurons get there? You train the neural network and they emerge from the learning process. No one told the network to include these types of neurons in its architecture. That is the fascinating thing,” he says.

    That is one area the researchers hope to explore with future work. They want to see if they can force a neural network to develop neurons with this specialization. They also want to apply their approach to more complex tasks, such as objects with complicated textures or varied illuminations.

    Boix is encouraged that a neural network can learn to overcome bias, and he is hopeful their work can inspire others to be more thoughtful about the datasets they are using in AI applications.

    This work was supported, in part, by the National Science Foundation, a Google Faculty Research Award, the Toyota Research Institute, the Center for Brains, Minds, and Machines, Fujitsu Research, and the MIT-Sensetime Alliance on Artificial Intelligence. More

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    Professor Emery Brown has big plans for anesthesiology

    Emery N. Brown — the Edward Hood Taplin Professor of Medical Engineering and of Computational Neuroscience at MIT, an MIT professor of health sciences and technology, an investigator with The Picower Institute for Learning and Memory at MIT, and the Warren M. Zapol Professor of Anaesthesia at Harvard Medical School and Massachusetts General Hospital (MGH) — clearly excels at many roles. Renowned internationally for his anesthesia and neuroscience research, he embodies a unique blend of anesthesiologist, statistician, neuroscientist, educator, and mentor to both students and colleagues. Notably, Brown is one of the most decorated clinician-scientists in the country; he is one of only 25 people — and the first African-American, statistician, and anesthesiologist — to be elected to all three National Academies (Science, Engineering, and Medicine).

    Now, he is handing off one of his many key roles and responsibilities. After almost 10 years, Brown is stepping down as co-director of the Harvard-MIT Program in Health Sciences and Technology (HST). He will turn his energies toward working to develop a new joint center between MIT and MGH that uses the study of anesthesia to design novel approaches to controlling brain states. While a goal of the new center will be to improve anesthesia and intensive care unit management, according to Brown, it will also study related problems such as treating depression, insomnia, and epilepsy, as well as enhancing coma recovery.

    Founded in 1970, HST is one of the oldest interdisciplinary educational programs focused on training the next generation of clinician-scientists and engineers, who learn to translate science, engineering, and medical research into clinical practice, with the aim of improving human health. The MIT Institute for Medical Engineering and Science (IMES), where Brown is associate director, is HST’s home at MIT. Brown was the first HST co-director after the establishment of IMES in 2012; Wolfram Goessling is the Harvard University co-director of HST.

    “Emery has been an exemplary leader for HST during his tenure, and has helped it become a hub for the training of world-class scientists, engineers, and clinicians,” says Anantha Chandrakasan, dean of the MIT School of Engineering and the Vannevar Bush Professor of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science. “I am deeply grateful for his many years of service and wish him well as he moves on to new endeavors.”

    Elazer R. Edelman, director of IMES, calls Brown “a phenom who has been dedicated to our programs for years.”

    “With his thoughtful leadership and understated style, Emery made many contributions to the HST community,” Edelman continues. “On a personal note, this is bittersweet for me, as Emery has been a partner and mentor in my role as IMES director. And while I know that he will always be there for me, as he has been for all of us at IMES and HST, I will miss our late-night calls and midday conferences on matters of import for MIT, IMES, and HST.”

    Brown says “it was an honor and a privilege to co-direct HST with Wolfram.”

    “The students, staff, and faculty are simply amazing,” Brown continues. “Although, now more than 50 years old, HST remains at the vanguard for training PhD and MD students to work at the intersection between engineering, science, and medicine.”

    Goessling also thanks Brown for his leadership: “I truly valued Emery’s partnership and friendship, working together to deepen ties between the MIT and Harvard sides of HST. I am particularly grateful for working with Emery on our combined diversity efforts, leading to the HST Diversity Ambassadors initiative that made HST a better and stronger program.”

    According to Edelman, Brown was instrumental in the transition to new paradigms and relationships with HMS in the context of IMES. In 2014, he led the establishment of clear criteria for HST faculty membership, thereby strengthening the community of faculty experts who train students and provide research opportunities. More recently, he provided guidance through the turmoil of the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic, including the transition to online instruction and the return to the classroom. And Brown has always been a strong supporter of student diversity efforts, serving as an advocate and advisor to HST students.

    Brown holds BA, MA, and PhD degrees from Harvard University, and an MD from Harvard Medical School. He has been recognized with many awards, including the 2020 Swartz Prize in Theoretical and Computational Neuroscience, the 2018 Dickson Prize in Science, and an NIH Director’s Pioneer Award. Brown also served on President Barack Obama’s BRAIN Initiative Working Group. Among his many accomplishments, he has been cited for developing neural signal processing algorithms to characterize how neural systems represent and transmit information, and for unlocking the neurophysiology of how anesthetics produce the states of general anesthesia.

    Edelman says the process is underway to name a successor to Brown as co-director of HST at MIT. More

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    New integrative computational neuroscience center established at MIT’s McGovern Institute

    With the tools of modern neuroscience, researchers can peer into the brain with unprecedented accuracy. Recording devices listen in on the electrical conversations between neurons, picking up the voices of hundreds of cells at a time. Genetic tools allow us to focus on specific types of neurons based on their molecular signatures. Microscopes zoom in to illuminate the brain’s circuitry, capturing thousands of images of elaborately branched dendrites. Functional MRIs detect changes in blood flow to map activity within a person’s brain, generating a complete picture by compiling hundreds of scans.

    This deluge of data provides insights into brain function and dynamics at different levels — molecules, cells, circuits, and behavior — but the insights remain compartmentalized in separate research silos for each level. An innovative new center at MIT’s McGovern Institute for Brain Research aims to leverage them into powerful revelations of the brain’s inner workings.

    The K. Lisa Yang Integrative Computational Neuroscience (ICoN) Center will create advanced mathematical models and computational tools to synthesize the deluge of data across scales and advance our understanding of the brain and mental health.

    The center, funded by a $24 million donation from philanthropist Lisa Yang and led by McGovern Institute Associate Investigator Ila Fiete, will take a collaborative approach to computational neuroscience, integrating cutting-edge modeling techniques and data from MIT labs to explain brain function at every level, from the molecular to the behavioral.

    “Our goal is that sophisticated, truly integrated computational models of the brain will make it possible to identify how ‘control knobs’ such as genes, proteins, chemicals, and environment drive thoughts and behavior, and to make inroads toward urgent unmet needs in understanding and treating brain disorders,” says Fiete, who is also a brain and cognitive sciences professor at MIT.

    “Driven by technologies that generate massive amounts of data, we are entering a new era of translational neuroscience research,” says Yang, whose philanthropic investment in MIT research now exceeds $130 million. “I am confident that the multidisciplinary expertise convened by the ICoN center will revolutionize how we synthesize this data and ultimately understand the brain in health and disease.”

    Connecting the data

    It is impossible to separate the molecules in the brain from their effects on behavior — although those aspects of neuroscience have traditionally been studied independently, by researchers with vastly different expertise. The ICoN Center will eliminate the divides, bringing together neuroscientists and software engineers to deal with all types of data about the brain.

    “The center’s highly collaborative structure, which is essential for unifying multiple levels of understanding, will enable us to recruit talented young scientists eager to revolutionize the field of computational neuroscience,” says Robert Desimone, director of the McGovern Institute. “It is our hope that the ICoN Center’s unique research environment will truly demonstrate a new academic research structure that catalyzes bold, creative research.”

    To foster interdisciplinary collaboration, every postdoc and engineer at the center will work with multiple faculty mentors. In order to attract young scientists and engineers to the field of computational neuroscience, the center will also provide four graduate fellowships to MIT students each year in perpetuity. Interacting closely with three scientific cores, engineers and fellows will develop computational models and technologies for analyzing molecular data, neural circuits, and behavior, such as tools to identify patterns in neural recordings or automate the analysis of human behavior to aid psychiatric diagnoses. These technologies and models will be instrumental in synthesizing data into knowledge and understanding.

    Center priorities

    In its first five years, the ICoN Center will prioritize four areas of investigation: episodic memory and exploration, including functions like navigation and spatial memory; complex or stereotypical behavior, such as the perseverative behaviors associated with autism and obsessive-compulsive disorder; cognition and attention; and sleep. Models of complex behavior will be created in collaboration with clinicians and researchers at Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia.

    The goal, Fiete says, is to model the neuronal interactions that underlie these functions so that researchers can predict what will happen when something changes — when certain neurons become more active or when a genetic mutation is introduced, for example. When paired with experimental data from MIT labs, the center’s models will help explain not just how these circuits work, but also how they are altered by genes, the environment, aging, and disease. These focus areas encompass circuits and behaviors often affected by psychiatric disorders and neurodegeneration, and models will give researchers new opportunities to explore their origins and potential treatment strategies.

    “Lisa Yang is focused on helping the scientific community realize its goals in translational research,” says Nergis Mavalvala, dean of the School of Science and the Curtis and Kathleen Marble Professor of Astrophysics. “With her generous support, we can accelerate the pace of research by connecting the data to the delivery of tangible results.” More