Engineering matter and mind
Ed Boyden develops new strategies for engineering brain circuits, using synthetic biology, nanotechnology, chemistry, electrical engineering, and optics to develop methodologies that can reveal fundamental mechanisms of complex brain processes. He has pioneered the development of optogenetics, a powerful method that enables brain activity to be controlled with light. He is now seeking to systematically integrate this and other technologies to create detailed maps and models of brain circuitry.
Controlling the brain with light
Boyden is best known for the development of optogenetics, a method for manipulating the activity of nerve cells using light. Optogenetics takes advantage of naturally occurring light-sensitive proteins from various microorganisms, which can be artificially expressed in neurons using genetic technology. By shining light into the brain, researchers can turn specific types of neurons on or off, with precise control of timing. Since its development in 2005, optogenetics has become an essential tool for thousands of brain researchers. It is also being tested as a clinical treatment for retinal blindness, and may also have applications for treating many other disorders from epilepsy to Parkinson's disease.
Boyden has developed many other technologies for manipulating and measuring the brain, ranging from new noninvasive brain stimulation methods to a robotic system for automated electrical recordings. One of the most audacious is a new technique called expansion microscopy (ExM), in which a microscopic specimen is embedded in a gel that swells as it absorbs water, thereby expanding nanoscale features to a size where they can be seen using conventional microscopes. Boyden is using this method to study the intricate patterns of connections between individual neurons, and he hopes that it will eventually be possible to produce a complete connectivity map of the brain.
Ed Boyden delivers a 2016 TEDSummit talk on expansion microscopy.
Ed Boyden moved to MIT in 2006, where he is now an Associate Professor with Tenure in the MIT Media Lab, with joint appointments in the Department of Biological Engineering and the Department of Brain and Cognitive Sciences. He received a PhD in Neuroscience from Stanford University in 2005. His work has won numerous awards, including the Perl/UNC prize, the A. F. Harvey prize, the Society for Neuroscience Young Investigator Award, the 2013 European Brain Research Prize, the 2013 Jacob Heskel Gabbay Award, and the 2016 Breakthrough Prize in Life Sciences.