Data provides insights into brain function and dynamics at different levels – molecules, cells, circuits, and behavior — but the insights often remain compartmentalized in separate research silos. The K. Lisa Yang Integrative Computational Neuroscience (ICoN) Center creates advanced mathematical models and computational tools to synthesize the deluge of data across scales and advance our understanding of the brain and mental health.
The center, funded by a $24 million donation from philanthropist Lisa Yang, takes a collaborative approach to computational neuroscience, integrating cutting-edge modeling techniques and data from MIT labs to explain brain function at every level, from the molecular to the behavioral.
“Our goal is that sophisticated, truly integrated computational models of the brain will make it possible to identify how ‘control knobs’ such as genes, proteins, chemicals, and environment drive thoughts and behavior, and to make inroads toward urgent unmet needs in understanding and treating brain disorders,” says McGovern Institute Associate Investigator Ila Fiete, who leads the center.
“Driven by technologies that generate massive amounts of data, we are entering a new era of translational neuroscience research,” says Yang, whose philanthropic investment in MIT research exceeds $130 million. “I am confident that the multidisciplinary expertise convened by the ICoN center will revolutionize how we synthesize this data and ultimately understand the brain in health and disease.”
Connecting the data
It is impossible to separate the molecules in the brain from their effects on behavior – although those aspects of neuroscience have traditionally been studied independently, by researchers with vastly different expertise. The ICoN Center eliminates the divides, bringing together neuroscientists and software engineers to deal with all types of data about the brain.
To foster interdisciplinary collaboration, every postdoctoral fellow and engineer at the center works with multiple faculty mentors. In order to attract young scientists and engineers to the field of computational neuroscience, the center provides four graduate fellowships to MIT students each year in perpetuity. Interacting closely with three scientific cores, engineers and fellows develop computational models and technologies for analyzing molecular data, neural circuits, and behavior, such as tools to identify patterns in neural recordings or automate the analysis of human behavior to aid psychiatric diagnoses. These technologies and models are instrumental in synthesizing data into knowledge and understanding.
The ICoN Center prioritizes four areas of investigation: episodic memory and exploration, including functions like navigation and spatial memory; complex or stereotypical behavior, such as the perseverative behaviors associated with autism and obsessive-compulsive disorder; cognition and attention; and sleep. Models of complex behavior are created in collaboration with clinicians and researchers at Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia.
The goal is to model the neuronal interactions that underlie these functions so that researchers can predict what will happen when something changes — when certain neurons become more active or when a genetic mutation is introduced, for example. When paired with experimental data from MIT labs, the center’s models will help explain not just how these circuits work, but also how they are altered by genes, the environment, aging, and disease. These focus areas encompass circuits and behaviors often affected by psychiatric disorders and neurodegeneration, and models give researchers new opportunities to explore their origins and potential treatment strategies.
Interested in working at the ICoN Center? Visit our careers page to see current openings.