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The Neurosciences at MIT

The new McGovern Institute for Brain Research builds on MIT researchers' already substantial contributions to the fast-growing fields of neuroscience and cognitive science. MIT's existing activities in the neurosciences include:

The Department of Brain and Cognitive Sciences (BCS) combines the experimental technologies of neuroscience and psychology with the theoretical power that comes from the fields of computational neuroscience and cognitive science. The head of the department is Mriganka Sur, Sherman Fairchild Professor of Neuroscience. Central to the BCS mission is the training of graduate students in the brain and cognitive sciences and the education of undergraduate students. The BCS major is now one of the fastest-growing majors at MIT.

The Center for Learning and Memory (CLM), led by Susumu Tonegawa, winner of the 1987 Nobel Prize for his work in immunology. Research in CLM is focused on the acquisition and nature of learning and memory. By seeking out the biological origins of complex brain functions, faculty in the Center hope not only to yield benefits to human health but to a deeper understanding of the nature of the human mind itself. Within the CLM is the RIKEN-MIT Neuroscience Research Center, a collaborative research venture with the RIKEN Institute of Physical and Chemical Research in Japan.

The Martinos Imaging Center will be located on the MIT campus. Biomedical imaging, a relatively young field, enables physicians and scientists to "see" and better understand tissue and organ function. It provides physicians with the ability to visualize the structure of tissues and to capture their function on film.

Neuroscience Research

MIT researchers have made substantial contributions to the field of cognitive science. Representative advances and continuing studies include:

Making, Breaking Habits

An MIT researcher who studies an area deep within the brain has uncovered clues about why good habits are so hard to make and bad habits are so hard to break. The work, led by Professor Ann Graybiel of the Department of Brain and Cognitive Sciences, may help those who suffer from extreme addictions and certain brain disorders.

Genetic Link to Memory

Using new genetic and multiple-cell monitoring technologies, MIT scientists demonstrated how animals form memory for places, which may directly relate to the same ability in humans. This "regional gene knockout" technology, through which scientists can develop a breed of mice in which a gene is eliminated in a specific area or only in one particular type of cell, will be valuable in the study of neurological diseases such as Alzheimer's and Huntington's. The team at MIT's Center for Learning and Memory was headed by Professor Matthew Wilson and the Director of the Center, Nobel laureate Susumu Tonegawa. Professors Tonegawa and Wilson both hold appointments in the Departments of Biology and Brain and Cognitive Sciences.

Humanoid Robot

Rodney Brooks and colleagues at the Artificial Intelligence Lab are developing a humanoid robot named Cog that Professor Brooks believes will help us understand human intelligence. The act of creating a thinking robot forces us to ask the right questions with respect to how intelligence works, said Dr. Brooks, Fujitsu Professor of Computer Science and Engineering.

Human and Computer Vision

Enabling computers to process visual information in much the same way that people do is the goal of Professor Edward Adelson of the Department of Brain and Cognitive Sciences. He is blending research in brain physiology, human perception and computer vision to learn more about how the human visual system works and how to apply those processes to digital images.

Brain Plasticity

MIT scientists have discovered that areas of the brain that process auditory information can be made to process visual information if they are stimulated with vision while the brain is developing. Such rewiring of the brain holds clues to understanding the development and plasticity of the brain, as well as fundamental operations involved in seeing and hearing, said Professor Mriganka Sur, head of the Department of Brain and Cognitive Sciences, who led this research.

Where Are We?

MIT researchers found that a sugar-cube-sized piece of the brain helps prevent us from being lost in space. Scientists led by Professor Nancy Kanwisher of the Department of Brain and Cognitive Sciences reported that a part of the brain called the parahippocampal cortex is very active when people look at photographs of indoor or outdoor scenes, but not when they look at photos of faces or objects. Professor Kanwisher says the results are surprising "in that few scientists would have predicted that this particular process--perceiving the layout of the local environment--would have its own special-purpose bit of brain dedicated to it."

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