Cognitive neuroscientist John Gabrieli has been named the 2021 winner of the Samuel Torrey Orton Award, the International Dyslexia Association’s highest honor. The award recognizes achievements of leading researchers and practitioners in the dyslexia field, as well as those of individuals with dyslexia who exhibit leadership and serve as role models in their communities.
“I am grateful to the International Dyslexia Association for this recognition,” said Gabrieli, who is the Grover Hermann Professor of Health Sciences and Technology, a professor of brain and cognitive sciences, and a member of MIT’s McGovern Institute for Brain Research. “The association has been such an advocate for individuals and their families who struggle with dyslexia, and has also been such a champion for the relevant science. I am humbled to join the company of previous recipients of this award who have done so much to help us understand dyslexia and how individuals with dyslexia can be supported to flourish in their growth and development.”
Gabrieli, who is also the director of MIT’s Athinoula A. Martinos Imaging Center, uses neuroimaging and behavioral tests to understand how the human brain powers learning, thinking, and feeling. For the last two decades, Gabrieli has sought to unravel the neuroscience behind learning and reading disabilities and, ultimately, convert that understanding into new and better education interventions—a sort of translational medicine for the classroom.
“We want to get every kid to be an adequate reader by the end of the third grade,” Gabrieli says. “That’s the ultimate goal: to help all children become learners.”
In March of 2018, Gabrieli and the MIT Integrated Learning Initiative—MITili, which he also directs—announced a $30 million-dollar grant from the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative for a collaboration between MIT, the Harvard Graduate School of Education, and Florida State University. This partnership, called “Reach Every Reader” aims to make significant progress on the crisis in early literacy – including tools to identify children at risk for dyslexia and other learning disabilities before they even learn to read.
“John is especially deserving of this award,” says Hugh Catts, Gabrieli’s colleague at Reach Every Reader. Catts is a professor and director of the School of Communications Science and Disorders at Florida State University. “His work has been seminal to our understanding of the neural basis of learning and learning difficulties such as dyslexia. He has been a strong advocate for individuals with dyslexia and a mentor to leading experts in the field,” says Catts, who is also received the Orton Award in 2008.
“It’s a richly deserved honor,”says Sanjay Sarma, the Fred Fort Flowers (1941) and Daniel Fort Flowers (1941) Professor of Mechanical Engineering at MIT. “John’s research is a cornerstone of MIT’s efforts to make education more equitable and accessible for all. His contributions to learning science inform so much of what we do, and his advocacy continues to raise public awareness of dyslexia and helps us better reach the dyslexic community through literacy initiatives such as Reach Every Reader. We’re so pleased that his work has been recognized with the Samuel Torrey Orton Award,” says Sarma, who is also Vice President for Open Learning at MIT.
Gabrieli will deliver the Samuel Torrey Orton and Joan Lyday Orton Memorial Lecture this fall in North Carolina as part of the 2021 International Dyslexia Association’s Annual Reading, Literacy and Learning Conference.
McGovern Institute Fellows Omar Abudayyeh and Jonathan Gootenberg have both been named to MIT Technology Review’s annual list of exceptional innovators under the age of 35. The annual list recognizes “exceptionally talented technologists whose work has great potential to transform the world.”
Abudayyeh was named to the 2020 list for developing a CRISPR-based test for COVID-19; a diagnostic technology that now has potential to rapidly and economically detect a wide variety of diseases.
This year, Gootenberg is being recognized for his work with CRISPR gene editing technologies to develop a cellular engineering “toolkit” that will help scientists better understand — and treat — diseases that affect millions worldwide.
“I’m honored that our lab’s work on molecular tools for cellular engineering is being recognized for its potential impact on diagnostics and therapeutics for patients.” — Jonathan Gootenberg
During their time in the Zhang lab, Abudayyeh and Gootenberg engineered new genome editing tools based on enzymes that they and others discovered from scanning bacterial CRISPR systems. In 2018, Gootenberg and Abudayyeh became the first members of the McGovern Institute Fellows program, which supports the transition to independent research for exceptional recent PhD graduates.
“It’s exciting that alternative uses of CRISPR beyond gene editing are being recognized, including for sensing and diagnosing diverse disease states and that certain CRISPR-based COVID-19 diagnostic assays already authorized for patient use,” says Abudayyeh.
“Omar and Jonathan’s combination of basic discovery and synthetic biology continues to deliver ever more powerful tools for probing and controlling cell activity,” says McGovern Institute Director Robert Desimone. “Such tools are key to the immense challenge of understanding brain function, and treating dysfunction, the goal of the McGovern Institute.”
Now Abudayyeh and Gootenberg is expanding the boundaries of cellular engineering tools, to encompass not only genome editing but also transcriptome control and cell-state sensing — powerful technologies that can change or correct how cells behave without permanently changing their genome. Just as CRISPR has helped decode the role of genes in disease and provided a method for changing gene sequences, the pair’s cellular engineering tools reveal how cells in the body transform in response to disease and provide new means of curing disease. It is the potential of these tools to usher in a new era of cellular discoveries and treatments that caught the attention of the editors at MITTechnology Review.
“We get more than 500 nominations for the list every year, and getting that list down to 35—a task not only for the editors at MIT Technology Review but also for our 30+ judges—is one of the hardest things we do each year,” says Tim Maher, Managing Editor of MIT Technology Review. “We love the way the final list always shows what a wide variety of people there are, all around the world, working on creative solutions to some of humanity’s hardest problems.”
Gootenberg and Abudayyeh continue to work together to build a comprehensive toolkit to both understand and engineer human cells. Gootenberg and his fellow honorees will be featured at the upcoming EmTech MIT conference, MIT Technology Review’s annual flagship event that offers a perspective on the most significant developments of the year, with a focus on understanding their potential business and societal impact. EmTech MIT will be held online September 28-30, 2021.
Slender probes equipped with electrodes, optical channels, and other tools are widely used by neuroscientists to monitor and manipulate brain activity in animal studies. Now, scientists at MIT have devised a way to make these usually rigid devices become as soft and pliable as their surroundings when they are implanted in the brain. Their new multifunctional devices are less intrusive than traditional neuroscience probes and remain functional for months after implantation, enabling long-term studies of neural circuits in animal models.
Researchers led by McGovern Institute scientist Polina Anikeeva built the new devices by embedding their functional components in a water-absorbing hydrogel. Each device begins as stiff probe able to penetrate brain tissue. But once it is in place, the hydrogel absorbs water and the device transforms.
“When it’s dry, it’s completely rigid. Its mechanics are dominated by mechanics of the polymers and metals that went into it,” explains Anikeeva, who is also an associate professor in the Departments of Materials Science and Engineering and Brain and Cognitive Sciences. “When it’s fully hydrated, it has the [mechanical] properties of the brain.”
Neural probes made out of metal or hard plastics have been invaluable in neuroscience research, allowing scientists to sense electrical activity within the brain, supply drugs to specific locations, or deliver neuron-activating pulses of light.
In 2015, Anikeeva and her group developed multifunctional probes, which are equipped with the tools to do all of these things. Although these polymer based devices were more biocompatible than metals and semiconductors, which can cut like tiny knives through the soft, jiggly tissue of the brain, their mechanics were still orders of magnitude away from those of neural tissue. Most neural probes can be used for a few weeks, until scar tissue forms around them and interferes with their function.
“For some experiments, this may not matter,” Anikeeva says. “But for other experiments, it does. If, for example, you’re interested in how a neuron evolves over the course of long-term behavior, or aging, or development, it’s important to keep track of the same tissue or the same cells. And that was challenging [with rigid probes].”
To enable longer experiments, Anikeeva’s team began to think about making multifunctional probes out of a material that is more compatible with the brain. “We wanted to create a device that would be stealthy, so the brain wouldn’t know that it’s there,” she says. To be useful, the device would still need some amount of hard material. But electrodes, microfluidic chambers, and optical channels can be tiny—just a fraction of the width of a human hair. “Even if they’re made out of polymer or soft metal, if you make them that small, they become sufficiently soft that they will be able to move with the brain and not cause damage,” Anikeeva says. It is the polymer matrix that surrounds these functional components that gives neural probes their shape and rigidity, which despite causing problems once inside the brain, is essential for implantation.
Seongjun Park, a graduate student in Anikeeva’s group, and Hyunwoo Yuk, another MIT graduate student who had been working with hydrogels in Xuanhe Zhao’s mechanical engineering lab, discussed the problem and proposed a probe that took advantage of that material. Because of hydrogels’ tunable nature, they could be used to build a device that was both stealthily squishy and piercingly rigid. By fine-tuning the chemistry, the team could ensure that after the device was implanted, its hydrogel would absorb just enough water to closely match the mechanics of the brain.
Other researchers had previously developed neural probes wrapped in a hydrogel covering, but Anikeeva’s team wanted the hydrogel to be the bulk of the device. They would use the swellable material to bundle together the functional elements and fill the space between them.
To do so, they assembled the fibers that would give their device its desired function—an electrode array fiber for sensing neural activity, an optical fiber for delivering light to manipulate signaling, and a fluidic fiber for delivering drugs and genes—and chemically treated them so that they would adhere directly to the components of a hydrogel.
They then dipped the treated fibers into a solution of a hydrogel-forming compound called alginate. By exposing the solution to light, they triggered the alginate to polymerize, ultimately creating a thin strand of the hydrogel with the functional fibers embedded within it.
When it is first pulled out of the solution, Anikeeva says, the hydrogel-based device is like a wet noodle, with its components moving freely within it like the bendable bristles of a wet paintbrush. As the hydrogel dries, the fibers become firmly affixed to one another and the entire device stiffens—much like a drying paintbrush.
To test the devices, Anikeeva’s team implanted them into mice, targeting anxiety circuits deep within the brain. They behaved exactly as they had hoped—easily penetrating into the tissue, then returning to their “wet noodle” state and remaining in place without triggering a foreign body response in the brain. After more than six months of recording neural activity, the probes remained fully functional.
Anikeeva says her team’s squishy new probes are the first multifunctional neural devices to remain effective in living animals for this prolonged period. The improved longevity of the devices compared to their predecessors means researchers will be able to use them to track and manipulate neuronal behavior during long-term processes such as learning, disease progression, and aging.
The team is already working on the next-generation of hydrogel probes, which will further take advantage of the material’s unique properties to control the release of drugs or other compounds within the brain and improve the devices’ biocompatibility. And with a simplified fabrication process in development, Anikeeva says it may soon be possible for neuroscientists to manufacture the stealthy probes in their own labs.
McGovern Investigator Ed Boyden says his lab’s vision is clear.
“We want to understand how our brains take our sensory inputs, generate emotions and memories and decisions, and ultimately result in motor outputs. We want to be able to see the building blocks of life, and how they go into disarray in brain diseases. We want to be able to control the signals of the brain, so we can repair it,” Boyden says.
To get there, he and his team are exploring the brain’s complexity at every scale, from the function and architecture of its neural networks to the molecules that work together to process information.
And when they don’t have the tools to take them where they want to go, they create them, opening new frontiers for neuroscientists everywhere.
Open to discovery
Boyden’s team is highly interdisciplinary and collaborative. Its specialty, Boyden says, is problem solving. Creativity, adaptability, and deep curiosity are essential, because while many of neuroscience’s challenges are clear, the best way to address them is not. In its search for answers, Boyden’s lab is betting that an important path to discovery begins with finding new ways to explore.
They’ve made that possible with an innovative imaging approach called expansion microscopy (ExM). ExM physically enlarges biological samples so that minute details become visible under a standard laboratory microscope, enabling researchers everywhere to peer into spaces that once went unseen (see video below).
To use the technique, researchers permeate a biological sample with an absorbent gel, then add water, causing the components of the gel to spread apart and the tissue to expand.
This year, postdoctoral researcher Ruixuan Gao and graduate student Chih-Chieh (Jay) Yu made the method more precise, with a new material that anchors a sample’s molecules within a crystal-like lattice, better preserving structure during expansion than the irregular mesh-like composition of the original gel. The advance is an important step toward being able to image expanded samples with single-molecule precision, Gao says.
A revealing look
By opening space within the brain, ExM has let Boyden’s team venture into those spaces in new ways.
In work led by Deblina Sarkar (who is now an assistant professor at MIT’s Media Lab), Jinyoung Kang, and Asmamaw (Oz) Wassie, they showed that they can pull apart proteins in densely packed regions like synapses so that it is easier to introduce fluorescent labels, illuminating proteins that were once too crowded to see. The process, called expansion revealing, has made it possible to visualize in intact brain tissue important structures such as ion channels that help transmit signals and fine-scale amyloid clusters in Alzheimer’s model mice.
Another reaction the lab has adapted to the expanded-brain context is RNA sequencing—an important tool for understanding cellular diversity. “Typically, the first thing you do in a sequencing project is you grind up the tissue, and you lose the spatial dimension,” explains Daniel Goodwin, a graduate student in Boyden’s lab. But when sequencing reactions are performed inside cells instead, new information is revealed.
Goodwin and fellow Boyden lab members Shahar Alon, Anubhav Sinha, Oz Wassie, and Fei Chen developed expansion sequencing (ExSeq), which copies RNA molecules, nucleotide by nucleotide, directly inside expanded tissue, using fluorescent labels that spell out the molecules’ codes just as they would in a sequencer.
The approach shows researchers which genes are turned on in which cells, as well as where those RNA molecules are—revealing, for example, which genes are active in the neuronal projections that carry out the brain’s communications. A next step, Sinha says, is to integrate expansion sequencing with other technologies to obtain even deeper insights.
That might include combining information revealed with ExSeq with a topographical map of the same cells’ genomes, using a method Boyden’s lab and collaborators Chen (who is now a core member of the Broad Institute) and Jason Buenrostro at Harvard have developed for DNA sequencing. That information is important because the shape of the genome varies across cells and circumstances, and that has consequences for how the genetic code is used.
Using similar techniques to those that make ExSeq possible, graduate students Andrew Payne, Zachary Chiang, and Paul Reginato figured out how to recreate the steps of commercial DNA sequencing within the genome’s natural environment.
By pinpointing the location of specific DNA sequences inside cells, the new method, called in situ genome sequencing (IGS) allows researchers to watch a genome reorganize itself in a developing embryo.
They haven’t yet performed this analysis inside expanded tissue, but Payne says integrating in situ genome sequencing (IGS) with ExM should open up new opportunities to study genomes’ structure.
Alongside these efforts, Boyden’s team is working to give researchers better tools to explore how molecules move, change, and interact, including a modular system that lets users assemble sets of sensors into clusters to simultaneously monitor multiple cellular activities.
Molecular sensors use fluorescence to report on certain changes inside cells, such as the calcium that surges into a neuron after it fires. But they come in a limited palette, so in most experiments only one or two things can be seen at once.
Graduate student Shannon Johnson and postdoctoral fellow Changyang Linghu solved this problem by putting different sensors at different points throughout a cell so they can report on different signals. Their technique, called spatial multiplexing, links sensors to molecular scaffolds designed to cling to their own kind. Sensors built on the same scaffold form islands inside cells, so when they light up their signals are distinct from those produced by other sensor islands.
Eventually, as new sensors and scaffolds become available, Johnson says the technique might be used to simultaneously follow dozens of molecular signals in living cells. The more precise information they can help people uncover, the better, Boyden says.
“My dream would be to image the signaling dynamics of the brain, and then perturb the dynamics, and then use expansion methods to make a map of the brain. If we can get those three data sets—the dynamics, the causality, and the molecular organization—I think stitching those together could potentially yield deep insights into how the brain works, and how we can repair it in disease states.”
The cerebellum is named “little brain” for its distinctive structure. Although the cerebellum was long considered only for its role in maintaining the balance and timing of movements, it has become evident that it is also important for balanced thoughts and emotions, belying the diversity of functions that “little brain” implies.
In a new study published in Schizophrenia Bulletin, McGovern Research Affiliate and Northeastern University Professor of Psychiatry Susan Whitfield-Gabrieli shows for the first time that cerebellar dysfunction actually precedes the onset of psychosis in schizophrenia, a brain disorder characterized by severe thought and emotional imbalances.
“This study exemplifies the concept of “neuroprediction,” the discovery of brain-based biomarkers that allow early detection and therefore early intervention for mental disorders,” says Whitfield-Gabrieli.
Cerebellar connectivity and schizophrenia
Early evidence that the cerebellum is involved in more than movement came from numerous reports that people with brain damage originating in the cerebellum can have severely disordered thought processes. Now cerebellar abnormalities have been identified in numerous neurodevelopmental and neuropsychiatric conditions including autism, attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), Alzheimer’s disease, and schizophrenia.
Whitfield-Gabrieli has focused on how symptoms in these disorders correlate with how well the cerebellum is connected to other brain regions, including regions of the cerebral cortex, the characteristically-folded, outer part of the brain. Active connections in the brain of people who are resting or who are engaged in a mental task can be found by functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI), a brain scanning technique that detects when and where oxygen is being used by cells. If oxygen usage in two brain regions consistently peaks at the same time while someone is in the scanner, they are considered to be functionally connected.
Connectivity differences prior to psychosis
In her new study, Whitfield-Gabrieli explored whether brain scans could reveal cerebellar abnormalities in people at-risk for schizophrenia.
To do this, she and her colleagues compared cerebellar connectivity among at-risk adolescents and young adults who went on to develop psychosis within the following year versus those that remained stable or improved. The at-risk participants were identified in an international collaboration called the Shanghai At Risk for Psychosis (SHARP) program that recruited people who were seeking help at China’s largest outpatient mental health center. Of the 144 adolescents and young adults at-risk for schizophrenia at the outset of the study, 23 went on to develop the disorder. Notably, this group showed fMRI patterns of cerebellar dysfunction at the outset of the study, before they developed psychosis.
Abnormal brain architecture
All of the brain scans were evaluated to determine the degree to which three specific cerebellar regions were connected to the cerebral cortex, a brain region that does not finish development until young adulthood. The cerebellar regions of interest to Whitfield-Gabrieli are part of the “dentate nuclei,” so named because they look like a set of jagged teeth. Neurons in the dentate nuclei serve to integrate inputs from the rest of the cerebellum and send the compiled information out to the rest of the brain. Whitfield-Gabrieli and colleagues divided the dentate nuclei into three zones according to what parts of the cerebral cortex they are functionally connected to while people are relaxing, doing visual tasks, or engaging in a motor task or receiving some sort of stimulation.
The team found abnormal connectivity for all three zones of the dentate nuclei in the individuals who later went on to develop schizophrenia. Since the connectivity patterns varied across regions within the three zones, with some regions over-connected and others under-connected to the cerebral cortex in the group that developed psychosis, separated high-resolution analyses of the different connections was key.
Previous work established that cerebellar abnormalities are associated with schizophrenia but this study is the first to show that functional connections between the deep cerebellar nuclei and the cerebral cortex might precede disease onset. “Treatments for mental disorders are inherently reactive to suffering and incapacity. A proactive approach by which abnormal brain architecture is identified prior to clinical diagnosis has the potential to prevent suffering by helping people before they become ill, one of my ultimate goals” said Whitfield-Gabrieli.
This study was supported by the Poitras Center for Psychiatric Disorders Research at MIT), US National Institute of Mental Health (R21 MH 093294, R01 MH 101052, R01 MH 111448, and R01 MH 64023), Ministry of Science and Technology of China (2016 YFC 1306803), European Union’s Horizon 2020 research and innovation program under the Marie Sklodowska-Curie grant agreement No. 749201 and by a VA Merit Award.
Gene editing, or purposefully changing a gene’s DNA sequence, is a powerful tool for studying how mutations cause disease, and for making changes in an individual’s DNA for therapeutic purposes. A novel method of gene editing that can be used for both purposes has now been developed by a team led by Guoping Feng, the James W. (1963) and Patricia T. Poitras Professor in Brain and Cognitive Sciences at MIT.
“This technical advance can accelerate the production of disease models in animals and, critically, opens up a brand-new methodology for correcting disease-causing mutations,” says Feng, who is also a member of the Broad Institute of Harvard and MIT and the associate director of the McGovern Institute for Brain Research at MIT. The new findings publish online May 26 and in print June 10 in the journal Cell.
Genetic models of disease
A major goal of the Feng lab is to precisely define what goes wrong in neurodevelopmental and neuropsychiatric disorders by engineering animal models that carry the gene mutations that cause these disorders in humans. New models can be generated by injecting embryos with gene editing tools, along with a piece of DNA carrying the desired mutation.
In one such method, the gene editing tool CRISPR is programmed to cut a targeted gene, thereby activating natural DNA mechanisms that “repair” the broken gene with the injected template DNA. The engineered cells are then used to generate offspring capable of passing the genetic change on to further generations, creating a stable genetic line in which the disease, and therapies, are tested.
Although CRISPR has accelerated the process of generating such disease models, the process can still take months or years. Reasons for the inefficiency are that many treated cells do not undergo the desired DNA sequence change at all, and the change only occurs on one of the two gene copies (for most genes, each cell contains two versions, one from the father and one from the mother).
In an effort to increase the efficiency of the gene editing process, the Feng lab team initially hypothesized that adding a DNA repair protein called RAD51 to a standard mixture of CRISPR gene editing tools would increase the chances that a cell (in this case a fertilized mouse egg, or one-cell embryo) would undergo the desired genetic change.
As a test case, they measured the rate at which they were able to insert (“knock-in”) a mutation in the gene Chd2 that is associated with autism. The overall proportion of embryos that were correctly edited remained unchanged, but to their surprise, a significantly higher percentage carried the desired gene edit on both chromosomes. Tests with a different gene yielded the same unexpected outcome.
“Editing of both chromosomes simultaneously is normally very uncommon,” explains postdoctoral fellow Jonathan Wilde. “The high rate of editing seen with RAD51 was really striking and what started as a simple attempt to make mutant Chd2 mice quickly turned into a much bigger project focused on RAD51 and its applications in genome editing,” said Wilde, who co-authored the Cell paper with research scientist Tomomi Aida.
A molecular copy machine
The Feng lab team next set out to understand the mechanism by which RAD51 enhances gene editing. They hypothesized that RAD51 engages a process called interhomolog repair (IHR), whereby a DNA break on one chromosome is repaired using the second copy of the chromosome (from the other parent) as the template.
To test this, they injected mouse embryos with RAD51 and CRISPR but left out the template DNA. They programmed CRISPR to cut only the gene sequence on one of the chromosomes, and then tested whether it was repaired to match the sequence on the uncut chromosome. For this experiment, they had to use mice in which the sequences on the maternal and paternal chromosomes were different.
They found that control embryos injected with CRISPR alone rarely showed IHR repair. However, addition of RAD51 significantly increased the number of embryos in which the CRISPR-targeted gene was edited to match the uncut chromosome.
“Previous studies of IHR found that it is incredibly inefficient in most cells,” says Wilde. “Our finding that it occurs much more readily in embryonic cells and can be enhanced by RAD51 suggest that a deeper understanding of what makes the embryo permissive to this type of DNA repair could help us design safer and more efficient gene therapies.”
A new way to correct disease-causing mutations
Standard gene therapy strategies that rely on injecting a corrective piece of DNA to serve as a template for repairing the mutation engage a process called homology-directed repair (HDR).
“HDR-based strategies still suffer from low efficiency and carry the risk of unwanted integration of donor DNA throughout the genome,” explains Feng. “IHR has the potential to overcome these problems because it relies upon natural cellular pathways and the patient’s own normal chromosome for correction of the deleterious mutation.”
Feng’s team went on to identify additional DNA repair-associated proteins that can stimulate IHR, including several that not only promote high levels of IHR, but also repress errors in the DNA repair process. Additional experiments that allowed the team to examine the genomic features of IHR events gave deeper insight into the mechanism of IHR and suggested ways that the technique can be used to make gene therapies safer.
“While there is still a great deal to learn about this new application of IHR, our findings are the foundation for a new gene therapy approach that could help solve some of the big problems with current approaches,” says Aida.
Michale Fee, the Glen V. and Phyllis F. Dorflinger Professor of Brain and Cognitive Sciences, has been named as the new head of the Department of Brain and Cognitive Sciences (BCS) effective May 1, 2021.
Fee, who is an investigator in the McGovern Institute for Brain Research, succeeds James DiCarlo, the Peter de Florez Professor of Neuroscience, who announced in December that he was stepping down to become director of the MIT Quest for Intelligence.
“I want to thank Jim for his impressive work over the last nine years as head,” says Fee. “I know firsthand from my time as associate department head that BCS is in good shape and on a steady course. Jim has set a standard of transparent and collaborative leadership, which is a solid foundation for making our community stronger on all fronts.” Fee notes that his first mission is to continue the initiatives begun under DiCarlo’s leadership—in academics (especially Course 6-9), mentoring, and diversity, equity, inclusion, and justice—while maintaining the highest standards of excellence in research and education.
“Jim has overseen significant growth in the faculty and its impact, as well as important academic initiatives to strengthen the department’s graduate and undergraduate programs,” says Nergis Mavalvala, dean of the School of Science. “His emphasis on building ties among BCS, the McGovern Institute for Brain Research, and the Picower Institute for Learning and Memory has brought innumerable new collaborations among researchers and helped solidify Building 46 and MIT as world leaders in brain science.”
Fee earned his BE in engineering physics in 1985 at the University of Michigan, and his PhD in applied physics at Stanford University in 1992, under the mentorship of Nobel laureate Stephen Chu. His doctoral work was followed by research in the Biological Computation Department at Bell Laboratories. He joined MIT and BCS as an associate professor in 2003 and was promoted to full professor in 2008.
He has served since 2012 as associate department head for education in BCS, overseeing significant evolution in the department’s academic programs, including a complete reworking of the Course 9 curriculum and the establishment in 2019 of Course 6-9, Computation and Cognition, in partnership with EECS.
In his research, Fee explores the neural mechanisms by which the brain learns complex sequential behaviors, using the learning of song by juvenile zebra finches as a model. He has brought new experimental and computational methods to bear on these questions, identifying a number of circuits used to learn, modify, time, and coordinate the development and utterance of song syllables.
“His work is emblematic of the department in that it crosses technical and disciplinary boundaries in search of the most significant discoveries,” says DiCarlo. “His research background gives Michale a deep appreciation of the importance of every sub-discipline in our community and a broad understanding of the importance of their connections with each other.”
Fee has received numerous honors and awards for his research and teaching, including the MIT Fundamental Science Investigator Award in 2017, the MIT School of Science Teaching Prize for Undergraduate Education in 2016, the BCS Award for Excellence in Undergraduate Teaching in 2015, and the Lawrence Katz Prize for Innovative Research in Neuroscience from Duke University in 2012.
Fee will be the sixth head of the department, after founding chair Hans-Lukas Teuber (1964–77), Richard Held (1977–86), Emilio Bizzi (1986–97), Mriganka Sur (1997–2012), and James DiCarlo (2012–21).
We all do it. One second you’re fully focused on the task in front of you, a conversation with a friend, or a professor’s lecture, and the next second your mind is wandering to your dinner plans.
But how does that happen?
“We spend so much of our daily lives engaged in things that are completely unrelated to what’s in front of us,” says Aaron Kucyi, neuroscientist and principal research scientist in the department of psychology at Northeastern. “And we know very little about how it works in the brain.”
So Kucyi and colleagues at Massachusetts General Hospital, Boston University, and the McGovern Institute at MIT started scanning people’s brains using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to get an inside look. Their results, published Friday in the journal Nature Communications, add complexity to our understanding of the wandering mind.
It turns out that spacing out might not deserve the bad reputation that it receives. Many more parts of the brain seem to be engaged in mind-wandering than previously thought, supporting the idea that it’s actually a quite dynamic and fundamental function of our psychology.
“Many of those things that we do when we’re spacing out are very adaptive and important to our lives,” says Kucyi, the paper’s first author. We might be drafting an email in our heads while in the shower, or trying to remember the host’s spouse’s name while getting dressed for a party. Moments when our minds wander can allow space for creativity and planning for the future, he says, so it makes sense that many parts of the brain would be engaged in that kind of thinking.
But mind wandering may also be detrimental, especially for those suffering from mental illness, explains the study’s senior author, Susan Whitfield-Gabrieli. “For many of us, mind wandering may be a healthy, positive and constructive experience, like reminiscing about the past, planning for the future, or engaging in creative thinking,” says Whitfield-Gabrieli, a professor of psychology at Northeastern University and a McGovern Institute research affiliate. “But for those suffering from mental illness such as depression, anxiety or psychosis, reminiscing about the past may transform into ruminating about the past, planning for the future may become obsessively worrying about the future and creative thinking may evolve into delusional thinking.”
Identifying the brain circuits associated with mind wandering, she says, may reveal new targets and better treatment options for people suffering from these disorders.
Inside the wandering mind
To study wandering minds, the researchers first had to set up a situation in which people were likely to lose focus. They recruited test subjects at the McGovern Institute’s Martinos Imaging Center to complete a simple, repetitive, and rather boring task. With an fMRI scanner mapping their brain activity, participants were instructed to press a button whenever an image of a city scene appeared on a screen in front of them and withhold a response when a mountain image appeared.
Throughout the experiment, the subjects were asked whether they were focused on the task at hand. If a subject said their mind was wandering, the researchers took a close look at their brain scans from right before they reported loss of focus. The data was then fed into a machine-learning algorithm to identify patterns in the neurological connections involved in mind-wandering (called “stimulus-independent, task-unrelated thought” by the scientists).
Scientists previously identified a specialized system in the brain considered to be responsible for mind-wandering. Called the “default mode network,” these parts of the brain activated when someone’s thoughts were drifting away from their immediate surroundings and deactivated when they were focused. The other parts of the brain, that theory went, were quiet when the mind was wandering, says Kucyi.
The “default mode network” did light up in Kucyi’s data. But parts of the brain associated with other functions also appeared to activate when his subjects reported that their minds had wandered.
For example, the “default mode network” and networks in the brain related to controlling or maintaining a train of thought also seemed to be communicating with one another, perhaps helping explain the ability to go down a rabbit hole in your mind when you’re distracted from a task. There was also a noticeable lack of communication between the “default mode network” and the systems associated with sensory input, which makes sense, as the mind is wandering away from the person’s immediate environment.
“It makes sense that virtually the whole brain is involved,” Kucyi says. “Mind-wandering is a very complex operation in the brain and involves drawing from our memory, making predictions about the future, dynamically switching between topics that we’re thinking about, fluctuations in our mood, and engaging in vivid visual imagery while ignoring immediate visual input,” just to name a few functions.
The “default mode network” still seems to be key, Kucyi says. Virtual computer analysis suggests that if you took the regions of the brain in that network out of the equation, the other brain regions would not be able to pick up the slack in mind-wandering.
Kucyi, however, didn’t just want to identify regions of the brain that lit up when someone said their mind was wandering. He also wanted to be able to use that generalized pattern of brain activity to be able to predict whether or not a subject would say that their focus had drifted away from the task in front of them.
That’s where the machine-learning analysis of the data came in. The idea, Kucyi says, is that “you could bring a new person into the scanner and not even ask them whether they were mind-wandering or not, and have a good estimate from their brain data whether they were.”
The ADHD brain
To test the patterns identified through machine learning, the researchers brought in a new set of test subjects – people diagnosed with ADHD. When the fMRI scans lit up the parts of the brain Kucyi and his colleagues had identified as engaged in mind-wandering in the first part of the study, the new test subjects reported that their thoughts had drifted from the images of cities and mountains in front of them. It worked.
Kucyi doesn’t expect fMRI scans to become a new way to diagnose ADHD, however. That wasn’t the goal. Perhaps down the road it could be used to help develop treatments, he suggests. But this study was focused on “informing the biological mechanisms behind it.”
John Gabrieli, a co-author on the study and director of the imaging center at MIT’s McGovern Institute, adds that “there is recent evidence that ADHD patients with more mind-wandering have many more everyday practical and clinical difficulties than ADHD patients with less mind-wandering. This is the first evidence about the brain basis for that important difference, and points to what neural systems ought to be the targets of intervention to help ADHD patients who struggle the most.”
For Kucyi, the study of “mind-wandering” goes beyond ADHD. And the contents of those straying thoughts may be telling, he says.
“We just asked people whether they were focused on the task or away from the task, but we have no idea what they were thinking about,” he says. “What are people thinking about? For example, are those more positive thoughts or negative thoughts?” Such answers, which he hopes to explore in future research, could help scientists better understand other pathologies such as depression and anxiety, which often involve rumination on upsetting or worrisome thoughts.
Whitfield-Gabrieli and her team are already exploring whether behavioral interventions, such as mindfulness based real-time fMRI neurofeedback, can be used to help train people suffering from mental illness to modulate their own brain networks and reduce hallucinations, ruminations, and other troubling symptoms.
“We hope that our research will have clinical implications that extend far beyond the potential for identifying treatment targets for ADHD,” she says.
Extreme repetitive behaviors such as hand-flapping, body-rocking, skin-picking and sniffing are common to a number of brain disorders including autism, schizophrenia, Huntington’s disease, and drug addiction. These behaviors, termed stereotypies, are also apparent in animal models of drug addiction and autism.
In a new study published in the European Journal of Neuroscience, researchers at the McGovern Institute have identified genes that are activated in the brain prior to the initiation of these severe repetitive behaviors.
“Our lab has found a small set of genes that are regulated in relation to the development of stereotypic behaviors in an animal model of drug addiction,” says MIT Institute Professor Ann Graybiel, who is the senior author of the paper. “We were surprised and interested to see that one of these genes is a susceptibility gene for schizophrenia. This finding might help to understand the biological basis of repetitive, stereotypic behaviors as seen in a range of neurologic and neuropsychiatric disorders, and in otherwise ‘typical’ people under stress.”
A shared molecular pathway
In work led by research scientist Jill Crittenden, researchers in the Graybiel lab exposed mice to amphetamine, a psychomotor stimulant that drives hyperactivity and confined stereotypies in humans and in laboratory animals and that is used to model symptoms of schizophrenia.
They found that stimulant exposure that drives the most prolonged repetitive behaviors lead to activation of genes regulated by Neuregulin 1, a signaling molecule that is important for a variety of cellular functions including neuronal development and plasticity. Neuregulin 1 gene mutations are risk factors for schizophrenia.
The new findings highlight a shared molecular and circuit pathway for stereotypies that are caused by drugs of abuse and in brain disorders, and have implications for why stimulant intoxication is a risk factor for the onset of schizophrenia.
“Experimental treatment with amphetamine has long been used in studies on rodents and other animals in tests to find better treatments for schizophrenia in humans, because there are some behavioral similarities across the two otherwise very different contexts,” explains Graybiel, who is also an investigator at the McGovern Institute and a professor of brain and cognitive sciences at MIT. “It was striking to find Neuregulin 1 — potentially one hint to shared mechanisms underlying some of these similarities.”
Drug exposure linked to repetitive behaviors
Although many studies have measured gene expression changes in animal models of drug addiction, this study is the first to evaluate genome-wide changes specifically associated with restricted repetitive behaviors.
Stereotypies are difficult to measure without labor-intensive, direct observation, because they consist of fine movements and idiosyncratic behaviors. In this study, the authors administered amphetamine (or saline control) to mice and then measured with photobeam-breaks how much they ran around. The researchers identified prolonged periods when the mice were not running around (e.g. were potentially engaged in confined stereotypies), and then they videotaped the mice during these periods to observationally score the severity of restricted repetitive behaviors (e.g. sniffing or licking stereotypies).
They gave amphetamine to each mouse once a day for 21 days and found that, on average, mice showed very little stereotypy on the first day of drug exposure but that, by the seventh day of exposure, all of the mice showed a prolonged period of stereotypy that gradually became shorter and shorter over the subsequent two weeks.
“We were surprised to see the stereotypy diminishing after one week of treatment. We had actually planned a study based on our expectation that the repetitive behaviors would become more intense, but then we realized that this was an opportunity to look at what gene changes were unique to that day of high stereotypy,” says first author Jill Crittenden.
The authors compared gene expression changes in the brains of mice treated with amphetamine for one day, seven days or 21 days. They hypothesized that the gene changes associated specifically with high-stereotypy-associated seven days of drug treatment were the most likely to underlie extreme repetitive behaviors and could identify risk-factor genes for such symptoms in disease.
A shared anatomical pathway
Previous work from the Graybiel lab has shown that stereotypy is directly correlated to circumscribed gene activation in the striatum, a forebrain region that is key for habit formation. In animals with the most intense stereotypy, most of the striatum does not show gene activation, but immediate early gene induction remains high in clusters of cells called striosomes. Striosomes have recently been shown to have powerful control over cells that release dopamine, a neuromodulator that is severely disrupted in drug addiction and in schizophrenia. Strikingly, striosomes contain high levels of Neuregulin 1.
“Our new data suggest that the upregulation of Neuregulin-responsive genes in animals with severely repetitive behaviors reflects gene changes in the striosomal neurons that control the release of dopamine,” Crittenden explains. “Dopamine can directly impact whether an animal repeats an action or explores new actions, so our study highlights a potential role for a striosomal circuit in controlling action-selection in health and in neuropsychiatric disease.”
Patterns of behavior and gene expression
Striatal gene expression levels were measured by sequencing messenger RNAs (mRNAs) in dissected brain tissue. mRNAs are read out from “active” genes to instruct protein-synthesis machinery in how to make the protein that corresponds to the gene’s sequence. Proteins are the main constituents of a cell, thereby controlling each cell’s function. The number of times a particular mRNA sequence is found reflects the frequency at which the gene was being read out at the time that the cellular material was collected.
To identify genes that were read out into mRNA before the period of prolonged stereotypy, the researchers collected brain tissue 20 minutes after amphetamine injection, which is about 30 minutes before peak stereotypy. They then identified which genes had significantly different levels of corresponding mRNAs in drug-treated mice than in mice treated with saline.
A wide variety of genes showed modest mRNA increases after the first amphetamine exposure, which induced mild hyperactivity and a range of behaviors such as walking, sniffing and rearing in the mice.
By the seventh day of treatment, all of the mice were engaged for prolonged periods in one specific repetitive behavior, such as sniffing the wall. Likewise, there were fewer genes that were activated by the seventh day relative to the first treatment day, but they were strongly activated in all mice that received the stereotypy-inducing amphetamine treatment.
By the twenty-first day of treatment, the stereotypy behaviors were less intense as was the gene upregulation – fewer genes were strongly activated, and more were repressed, relative to the other treatments. “It seemed that the mice had developed tolerance to the drug, both in terms of their behavioral response and in terms of their gene activation response,” says Crittenden.
“Trying to seek patterns of gene regulation starting with behavior is correlative work, and we did not prove ‘causality’ in this first small study,” explains Graybiel. “But we hope that the striking parallels between the scope and selectivity of the mRNA and behavioral changes that we detected will help in further work on the tremendously challenging goal of treating addiction.”
This work was funded by the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development, the Saks-Kavanaugh Foundation, the Broderick Fund for Phytocannabinoid Research at MIT, the James and Pat Poitras Research Fund, The Simons Foundation and The Stanley Center for Psychiatric Research at the Broad Institute.
This story is adapted from a January 27, 2021 press release from Massachusetts General Hospital.
The ability to understand others’ hidden thoughts and beliefs is an essential component of human social behavior. Now, neuroscientists have for the first time identified specific neurons critical for social reasoning, a cognitive process that requires individuals to acknowledge and predict others’ hidden beliefs and thoughts.
The findings, published in Nature, open new avenues of study into disorders that affect social behavior, according to the authors.
In the study, a team of Harvard Medical School investigators based at Massachusetts General Hospital and colleagues from MIT took a rare look at how individual neurons represent the beliefs of others. They did so by recording neuron activity in patients undergoing neurosurgery to alleviate symptoms of motor disorders such as Parkinson’s disease.
Theory of mind
The researcher team, which included McGovern scientists Ev Fedorenko and Rebecca Saxe, focused on a complex social cognitive process called “theory of mind.” To illustrate this, let’s say a friend appears to be sad on her birthday. One may infer she is sad because she didn’t get a present or she is upset at growing older.
“When we interact, we must be able to form predictions about another person’s unstated intentions and thoughts,” said senior author Ziv Williams, HMS associate professor of neurosurgery at Mass General. “This ability requires us to paint a mental picture of someone’s beliefs, which involves acknowledging that those beliefs may be different from our own and assessing whether they are true or false.”
This social reasoning process develops during early childhood and is fundamental to successful social behavior. Individuals with autism, schizophrenia, bipolar affective disorder, and traumatic brain injuries are believed to have a deficit of theory-of-mind ability.
For the study, 15 patients agreed to perform brief behavioral tasks before undergoing neurosurgery for placement of deep-brain stimulation for motor disorders. Microelectrodes inserted into the dorsomedial prefrontal cortex recorded the behavior of individual neurons as patients listened to short narratives and answered questions about them.
For example, participants were presented with the following scenario to evaluate how they considered another’s belief of reality: “You and Tom see a jar on the table. After Tom leaves, you move the jar to a cabinet. Where does Tom believe the jar to be?”
The participants had to make inferences about another’s beliefs after hearing each story. The experiment did not change the planned surgical approach or alter clinical care.
“Our study provides evidence to support theory of mind by individual neurons,” said study first author Mohsen Jamali, HMS instructor in neurosurgery at Mass General. “Until now, it wasn’t clear whether or how neurons were able to perform these social cognitive computations.”
The investigators found that some neurons are specialized and respond only when assessing another’s belief as false, for example. Other neurons encode information to distinguish one person’s beliefs from another’s. Still other neurons create a representation of a specific item, such as a cup or food item, mentioned in the story. Some neurons may multitask and aren’t dedicated solely to social reasoning.
“Each neuron is encoding different bits of information,” Jamali said. “By combining the computations of all the neurons, you get a very detailed representation of the contents of another’s beliefs and an accurate prediction of whether they are true or false.”
Now that scientists understand the basic cellular mechanism that underlies human theory of mind, they have an operational framework to begin investigating disorders in which social behavior is affected, according to Williams.
“Understanding social reasoning is also important to many different fields, such as child development, economics, and sociology, and could help in the development of more effective treatments for conditions such as autism spectrum disorder,” Williams said.
Previous research on the cognitive processes that underlie theory of mind has involved functional MRI studies, where scientists watch which parts of the brain are active as volunteers perform cognitive tasks.
But the imaging studies capture the activity of many thousands of neurons all at once. In contrast, Williams and colleagues recorded the computations of individual neurons. This provided a detailed picture of how neurons encode social information.
“Individual neurons, even within a small area of the brain, are doing very different things, not all of which are involved in social reasoning,” Williams said. “Without delving into the computations of single cells, it’s very hard to build an understanding of the complex cognitive processes underlying human social behavior and how they go awry in mental disorders.”