At MIT, we seek out worthy opponents: the big, daunting problems whose solutions add to the sum of knowledge or address humanity’s great practical challenges. By that standard, with as many neurons as there are stars in the universe, the human brain and the mysteries of consciousness have long commanded our attention. Forty years ago, MIT advanced the idea that we would study mind and brain with the quantitative rigor of true science. Today, armed with advanced computational strategies, the tools of molecular biology and the latest imaging technologies, the Institute is helping to lead a new neuroscience era, one that promises the possibility of scientifically targeted therapies for the devastating disorders of the brain. This issue of Spectrum opens a window onto this intriguing new world.
Let me offer a little personal perspective. I am a neuroscientist, yet when I started college, neuroscience did not yet exist as an independent field of study. When I set up my first independent laboratory, we believed that six neurotransmitters accounted for all of the chemical signaling in the nervous system, and that each neurotransmitter worked through only one receptor; such a comparatively simple system did not require sophisticated computational approaches. By now, of course, we’ve learned that each of dozens of neurotransmitters can exert its effects through potentially hundreds of different receptors. And it turns out that a few orders of magnitude change everything; advanced computation figures prominently in today’s neuroscience.
Fortunately, at MIT, we know something about computation. What’s more, through the Athinoula A. Martinos Imaging Center, we have unparalleled access to technologies like functional magnetic resonance imaging, or fMRI, a tool that makes it possible to watch the living brain in action. Drawing on such resources, as well as on MIT’s uncommon depth and breadth in areas from electrical engineering and physics to genomics and nanotechnology, and from linguistics to behavior, the Institute has created the largest and, arguably, the most distinguished center of neuroscience research in the world.
Moments of scientific opportunity like this attract the world’s top talent. One sure sign is the number of researchers migrating to the field, often from other disciplines; many of our own top brain researchers came to this work from electrical engineering, computer science, physics, biophysics, veterinary medicine, artificial intelligence, and quantum computing. With a radically collaborative, multidisciplinary approach, together they are taking on the difficult questions of how the brain works, how it goes awry in conditions like schizophrenia, Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, bipolar disease, and autism, and how we can treat these crippling disorders or perhaps one day even prevent them.
At MIT, we love bold experiments, the kind that change the rules, and we have an impressive record of making bets that win. That fearless experimental spirit, coupled with the intense collaboration of our investigators and the extraordinary support of philanthropic friends, is exactly what will drive us to the next level in brain research.