Engineering matter and mind
Ed Boyden develops new strategies for analyzing and engineering brain circuits, using synthetic biology, nanotechnology, chemistry, electrical engineering, and optics to develop broadly applicable methodologies that reveal fundamental mechanisms of complex brain processes. A major goal of his current work is the development of technologies for controlling nerve cells using light – a powerful new technology known as optogenetics that is opening the door to new treatments for conditions such as epilepsy, Parkinson’s disease, and mood disorders.
Controlling the brain with light
A major goal of Boyden’s current work is to manipulate individual nerve cells using light. To do this, he takes advantage of naturally occurring light-sensitive proteins from various microorganisms, which can be artificially expressed in brain cells using genetic technology. By controlling these proteins with an implanted fiber-optic device, Boyden is developing on/off switches for brain activity. This will be a powerful way to test theories of brain function in experimental animals, and could also open the door to new clinical therapies for conditions such as epilepsy, Parkinson’s disease, or blindness.
Ed Boyden explains optogenetics, a technology for controlling brain activity with light. Video: National Geographic Channel
Boyden is also working on a technology known as trans-cranial magnetic stimulation (TMS). In this approach, magnetic coils close to the surface of the head are used to generate magnetic pulses that pass through the skull and influence activity in the underlying brain region. It is a noninvasive method for manipulating human brain activity, and is widely used both as a research tool and as clinical therapy for promoting recovery after stroke. But current TMS devices are imprecise and have led to inconsistent results. Boyden is using his training as a physicist and engineer to develop a smaller and more precise TMS system that will enhance the effectiveness of the device and reduce unwanted side effects.
Ed Boyden joined the McGovern Institute for Brain Research in July 2007. In 2006, he joined the MIT Media Lab as a visiting scientist, where he is now a Professor (jointly with the Department of Biological Engineering and the Department of Brain and Cognitive Sciences). He received a Ph.D. in Neuroscience from Stanford University in 2005. He holds a double B.S. in Physics and Electrical Engineering and Computer Science and a Master of Engineering in Electrical Engineering and Computer Science from MIT. His work has won numerous awards, including the Perl/UNC prize, the A. F. Harvey prize, the Society for Neuroscience Research Award for Innovation in Neuroscience, and the 2013 European Brain Research Prize.
Photo: Justin Knight Photography