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Mriganka Sur sees 'great synergy' in new complex

Mriganka Sur, head of the Department of Brain and Cognitive Sciences, stands on a balcony overlooking the 90-foot atrium inside the new Brain and Cognitive Sciences Complex, which will be officially dedicated on Friday, Dec. 2.
Mriganka Sur, head of the Department of Brain and Cognitive Sciences, stands on a balcony overlooking the 90-foot atrium inside the new Brain and Cognitive Sciences Complex, which will be officially dedicated on Friday, Dec. 2.
Photo / Donna Coveney

In advance of this week's opening of the new Brain and Cognitive Sciences Complex, News Office writer Elizabeth Thomson conducted the following interview with Mriganka Sur, head of the Department of Brain and Cognitive Sciences.

Q: What is unique or special about MIT's approach to cognitive science and neuroscience?

A: MIT emphasized -- long before it became fashionable -- a highly integrated and interdisciplinary approach to understanding the brain and mind. (These fields later came to be known as neuroscience and cognitive science respectively.)

Cognitive science has its roots in [Institute Professor Emeritus Noam] Chomsky's analysis of language, showing that the mind has a structure that can be analyzed in terms of the computations it carries out. Neuroscience has its roots in the analysis of the brain and behavior, which was pioneered by the late Hans-Lukas Teuber when he founded the Department of Psychology at MIT in the early '60s.

MIT's Department of Brain and Cognitive Sciences is the only department of its kind, anywhere, in which the study of the brain and mind is carried out by a single faculty, and in which the various levels of analysis for studying the brain -- molecular, systems and computational -- come together with the cognitive level.

Q: What will the new complex make possible in terms of research?

A: It is very special to have these levels of analysis -- molecular (the study of the brain's molecules, such as neurotransmitters and receptors), systems (the study of neurons and neuronal networks), computational (the study of theoretical properties of cells and networks) and cognitive (the study of brain modules and the mind) -- represented under one roof, with different laboratories, students and researchers in close proximity.

We expect great synergy to come out of this.

As one example, new approaches to studying brain disorders such as autism are already under way by collaboration among researchers in the BCS Complex. Autism is a developmental disorder of the brain that needs to be understood at various levels, including its genetic basis, characterization of its cognitive symptoms involving deficits in social interaction, language, perception and movement, and the mechanisms by which genetic influences lead to behavioral effects.

Having these various approaches in close proximity, in one complex, is unique, and I strongly believe it will lead to unexpected ideas and discoveries.

Proximity and buildings matter a great deal in science. People looking in on science and scientists often think science progresses linearly, with one discovery made after another till a problem is solved. In practice, the greatest discoveries in science often work the other way around. A discovery or solution is first imagined in the mind of the scientist, and then shown to be true by experimentation.

We expect that [the BCS Complex] will expand the imagination of our students and researchers by allowing them easy access to other ways and levels and scales of thinking and knowing. And we believe that the building Charles Correa has designed for us, with its soaring spaces and light, will allow our imaginations to soar as well.

Q: What are the top three questions in neuroscience that researchers here (and around the world) are working to understand?

A: The answer depends on the person you ask. For me, the major issues are: how is the brain wired (or, how does the brain wire itself as we learn and remember); how do brain networks create function; and how do these cellular and network functions give rise to the mind (including its exceptional features such as language and thought, and up to consciousness).

Q: What major advances in neuroscience do you foresee in five years? In 20?

A: In the field of neuroscience, I believe the next five years will see major advances in understanding the molecules that give rise to the growth and plasticity, or adaptability, of connections in the brain; the rapid advancement of tools for imaging single neurons as well as for imaging the entire brain; the development of experimental and theoretical tools for studying populations of neurons; and the novel combination of tools across scales and levels of analysis for addressing the function of neuronal networks.

In 20 years, I believe we will have a very good understanding of the rules by which the brain is wired, by which it functions and changes, and by which brain function goes awry in a range of disorders. Specifically, I believe we will have a comprehensive roadmap of the genes that lay down a scaffold for brain development; a very significant understanding of the ways by which the environment interacts with brain molecules to shape the nature of connections in development and in adulthood to enable learning; knowledge of the experimental and computational principles by which neuronal networks give rise to emergent properties and lay the bases for behavior; and significant understanding of the deepest questions in cognitive science, such as the roots of language, perception, reasoning, emotions and social interactions.

These advances will be fundamental to unraveling the causes of, and finding treatments for, a range of brain diseases and disorders. In particular, I believe we will have identified targets for treating several of the degenerative diseases of the brain, and will be well on our way to identifying similar targets for at least a subset of developmental disorders.

A version of this article appeared in MIT Tech Talk on November 30, 2005 (download PDF).

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