Dealing with uncertainty

As we interact with the world, we are constantly presented with information that is unreliable or incomplete – from jumbled voices in a crowded room to solicitous strangers with unknown motivations. Fortunately, our brains are well equipped to evaluate the quality of the evidence we use to make decisions, usually allowing us to act deliberately, without jumping to conclusions.

Now, neuroscientists at MIT’s McGovern Institute have homed in on key brain circuits that help guide decision-making under conditions of uncertainty. By studying how mice interpret ambiguous sensory cues, they’ve found neurons that stop the brain from using unreliable information.

“One area cares about the content of the message—that’s the prefrontal cortex—and the thalamus seems to care about how certain the input is.” – Michael Halassa

The findings, published October 6, 2021, in the journal Nature, could help researchers develop treatments for schizophrenia and related conditions, whose symptoms may be at least partly due to affected individuals’ inability to effectively gauge uncertainty.

Decoding ambiguity

“A lot of cognition is really about handling different types of uncertainty,” says McGovern Associate Investigator Michael Halassa, explaining that we all must use ambiguous information to make inferences about what’s happening in the world. Part of dealing with this ambiguity involves recognizing how confident we can be in our conclusions. And when this process fails, it can dramatically skew our interpretation of the world around us.

“In my mind, schizophrenia spectrum disorders are really disorders of appropriately inferring the causes of events in the world and what other people think,” says Halassa, who is a practicing psychiatrist. Patients with these disorders often develop strong beliefs based on events or signals most people would dismiss as meaningless or irrelevant, he says. They may assume hidden messages are embedded in a garbled audio recording, or worry that laughing strangers are plotting against them. Such things are not impossible—but delusions arise when patients fail to recognize that they are highly unlikely.

Halassa and postdoctoral researcher Arghya Mukherjee wanted to know how healthy brains handle uncertainty, and recent research from other labs provided some clues. Functional brain imaging had shown that when people are asked to study a scene but they aren’t sure what to pay attention to, a part of the brain called the mediodorsal thalamus becomes active. The less guidance people are given for this task, the harder the mediodorsal thalamus works.

The thalamus is a sort of crossroads within the brain, made up of cells that connect distant brain regions to one another. Its mediodorsal region sends signals to the prefrontal cortex, where sensory information is integrated with our goals, desires, and knowledge to guide behavior. Previous work in the Halassa lab showed that the mediodorsal thalamus helps the prefrontal cortex tune in to the right signals during decision-making, adjusting signaling as needed when circumstances change. Intriguingly, this brain region has been found to be less active in people with schizophrenia than it is in others.

group photo of study authors
Study authors (from left to right) Michael Halassa, Arghya Mukherjee, Norman Lam and Ralf Wimmer.

Working with postdoctoral researcher Norman Lam and research scientist Ralf Wimmer, Halassa and Mukherjee designed a set of animal experiments to examine the mediodorsal thalamus’s role in handling uncertainty. Mice were trained to respond to sensory signals according to audio cues that alerted them whether to focus on either light or sound. When the animals were given conflicting cues, it was up to them animal to figure out which one was represented most prominently and act accordingly. The experimenters varied the uncertainty of this task by manipulating the numbers and ratio of the cues.

Division of labor

By manipulating and recording activity in the animals’ brains, the researchers found that the prefrontal cortex got involved every time mice completed this task, but the mediodorsal thalamus was only needed when the animals were given signals that left them uncertain how to behave. There was a simple division of labor within the brain, Halassa says. “One area cares about the content of the message—that’s the prefrontal cortex—and the thalamus seems to care about how certain the input is.”

Within the mediodorsal thalamus, Halassa and Mukherjee found a subset of cells that were especially active when the animals were presented with conflicting sound cues. These neurons, which connect directly to the prefrontal cortex, are inhibitory neurons, capable of dampening downstream signaling. So when they fire, Halassa says, they effectively stop the brain from acting on unreliable information. Cells of a different type were focused on the uncertainty that arises when signaling is sparse. “There’s a dedicated circuitry to integrate evidence across time to extract meaning out of this kind of assessment,” Mukherjee explains.

As Halassa and Mukherjee investigate these circuits more deeply, a priority will be determining whether they are disrupted in people with schizophrenia. To that end, they are now exploring the circuitry in animal models of the disorder. The hope, Mukherjee says, is to eventually target dysfunctional circuits in patients, using noninvasive, focused drug delivery methods currently under development. “We have the genetic identity of these circuits. We know they express specific types of receptors, so we can find drugs that target these receptors,” he says. “Then you can specifically release these drugs in the mediodorsal thalamus to modulate the circuits as a potential therapeutic strategy.”

This work was funded by grants from the National Institute of Mental Health (R01MH107680-05 and R01MH120118-02).

Identifying the structure and function of a brain hub

Our ability to pay attention, plan, and trouble-shoot involve cognitive processing by the brain’s prefrontal cortex. The balance of activity among excitatory and inhibitory neurons in the cortex, based on local neural circuits and distant inputs, is key to these cognitive functions.

A recent study from the McGovern Institute shows that excitatory inputs from the thalamus activate a local inhibitory circuit in the prefrontal cortex, revealing new insights into how these cognitive circuits may be controlled.

“For the field, systematic identification of these circuits is crucial in understanding behavioral flexibility and interpreting psychiatric disorders in terms of dysfunction of specific microcircuits,” says postdoctoral associate Arghya Mukherjee, lead author on the report.

Hub of activity

The thalamus is located in the center of the brain and is considered a cerebral hub based on its inputs from a diverse array of brain regions and outputs to the striatum, hippocampus, and cerebral cortex. More than 60 thalamic nuclei (cellular regions) have been defined and are broadly divided into “sensory” or “higher-order” thalamic regions based on whether they relay primary sensory inputs or instead have inputs exclusively from the cerebrum.

Considering the fundamental distinction between the input connections of the sensory and higher-order thalamus, Mukherjee, a researcher in the lab of Michael Halassa, the Class of 1958 Career Development Professor in MIT’s Department of Brain and Cognitive Sciences, decided to explore whether there are similarly profound distinctions in their outputs to the cerebral cortex.

He addressed this question in mice by directly comparing the outputs of the medial geniculate body (MGB), a sensory thalamic region, and the mediodorsal thalamus (MD), a higher-order thalamic region. The researchers selected these two regions because the relatively accessible MGB nucleus relays auditory signals to cerebral cortical regions that process sound, and the MD interconnects regions of the prefrontal cortex.

Their study, now available as a preprint in eLife, describes key functional and anatomical differences between these two thalamic circuits. These findings build on Halassa’s previous work showing that outputs from higher-order thalamic nuclei play a central role in cognitive processing.

A side by side comparison of the two microcircuits: (Left) MD receives its primary inputs (black) from the frontal cortex and sends back inhibition dominant outputs to multiple layers of the prefrontal cortex. (Right) MGB receives its primary input (black) from the auditory midbrain and acts as a ‘relay’ by sending excitation dominant outputs specifically to layer 4 of the auditory cortex. Image: Arghya Mukherjee

Circuit analysis

Using cutting-edge stimulation and recording methods, the researchers found that neurons in the prefrontal and auditory cortices have dramatically different responses to activation of their respective MD and MGB inputs.

The researchers stimulated the MD-prefrontal and MGB-auditory cortex circuits using optogenetic technology and recorded the response to this stimulation with custom multi-electrode scaffolds that hold independently movable micro-drives for recording hundreds of neurons in the cortex. When MGB neurons were stimulated with light, there was strong activation of neurons in the auditory cortex. By contrast, MD stimulation caused a suppression of neuron firing in the prefrontal cortex and concurrent activation of local inhibitory interneurons. The separate activation of the two thalamocortical circuits had dramatically different impacts on cortical output, with the sensory thalamus seeming to promote feed-forward activity and the higher-order thalamus stimulating inhibitory microcircuits within the cortical target region.

“The textbook view of the thalamus is an excitatory cortical input, and the fact that turning on a thalamic circuit leads to a net cortical inhibition was quite striking and not something you would have expected based on reading the literature,” says Halassa, who is also an associate investigator at the McGovern Institute. “Arghya and his colleagues did an amazing job following that up with detailed anatomy to explain why might this effect be so.”

Anatomical differences

Using a system called GFP (green fluorescent protein) reconstitution across synaptic partners (mGRASP), the researchers demonstrated that MD and MGB projections target different types of cortical neurons, offering a possible explanation for their differing effects on cortical activity.

With mGRASP, the presynaptic terminal (in this case, MD or MGB) expresses one part of the fluorescent protein and the postsynaptic neuron (in this case, prefrontal or auditory cortex) expresses the other part of the fluorescent protein, which by themselves alone do not fluoresce. Only when there is a close synaptic connection do the two parts of GFP come together to become fluorescent. These experiments showed that MD neurons synapse more frequently onto inhibitory interneurons in the prefrontal cortex whereas MGB neurons synapse onto excitatory neurons with larger synapses, consistent with only MGB being a strong activity driver.

Using fluorescent viral vectors that can cross synapses of interconnected neurons, a technology developed by McGovern principal research scientist Ian Wickersham, the researchers were also able to map the inputs to the MD and MGB thalamic regions. Viruses, like rabies, are well-suited for tracing neural connections because they have evolved to spread from neuron to neuron through synaptic junctions.

The inputs to the targeted higher-order and sensory thalamocortical neurons identified across the brain appeared to arise respectively from forebrain and midbrain sensory regions, as expected. The MGB inputs were consistent with a sensory relay function, arising primarily from the auditory input pathway. By contrast, MD inputs arose from a wide array of cerebral cortical regions and basal ganglia circuits, consistent with MD receiving contextual and motor command information.

Direct comparisons

By directly comparing these microcircuits, the Halassa lab has revealed important clues about the function and anatomy of these sensory and higher-order brain connections. It is only through a systematic understanding of these circuits that we can begin to interpret how their dysfunction may contribute to psychiatric disorders like schizophrenia.

It is this basic scientific inquiry that often fuels their research, says Halassa. “Excitement about science is part of the glue that holds us all together.”

Mapping the brain’s sensory gatekeeper

Many people with autism experience sensory hypersensitivity, attention deficits, and sleep disruption. One brain region that has been implicated in these symptoms is the thalamic reticular nucleus (TRN), which is believed to act as a gatekeeper for sensory information flowing to the cortex.

A team of researchers from MIT and the Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard has now mapped the TRN in unprecedented detail, revealing that the region contains two distinct subnetworks of neurons with different functions. The findings could offer researchers more specific targets for designing drugs that could alleviate some of the sensory, sleep, and attention symptoms of autism, says Guoping Feng, one of the leaders of the research team.

These cross-sections of the thalamic reticular nucleus (TRN) show two distinct populations of neurons, labeled in purple and green. A team of researchers from MIT and the Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard has now mapped the TRN in unprecedented detail.
Image: courtesy of the researchers

“The idea is that you could very specifically target one group of neurons, without affecting the whole brain and other cognitive functions,” says Feng, the James W. and Patricia Poitras Professor of Neuroscience at MIT and a member of MIT’s McGovern Institute for Brain Research.

Feng; Zhanyan Fu, associate director of neurobiology at the Broad Institute’s Stanley Center for Psychiatric Research; and Joshua Levin, a senior group leader at the Broad Institute, are the senior authors of the study, which appears today in Nature. The paper’s lead authors are former MIT postdoc Yinqing Li, former Broad Institute postdoc Violeta Lopez-Huerta, and Broad Institute research scientist Xian Adiconis.

Distinct populations

When sensory input from the eyes, ears, or other sensory organs arrives in our brains, it goes first to the thalamus, which then relays it to the cortex for higher-level processing. Impairments of these thalamo-cortical circuits can lead to attention deficits, hypersensitivity to noise and other stimuli, and sleep problems.

One of the major pathways that controls information flow between the thalamus and the cortex is the TRN, which is responsible for blocking out distracting sensory input. In 2016, Feng and MIT Assistant Professor Michael Halassa, who is also an author of the new Nature paper, discovered that loss of a gene called Ptchd1 significantly affects TRN function. In boys, loss of this gene, which is carried on the X chromosome, can lead to attention deficits, hyperactivity, aggression, intellectual disability, and autism spectrum disorders.

In that study, the researchers found that when the Ptchd1 gene was knocked out in mice, the animals showed many of the same behavioral defects seen in human patients. When it was knocked out only in the TRN, the mice showed only hyperactivity, attention deficits, and sleep disruption, suggesting that the TRN is responsible for those symptoms.

In the new study, the researchers wanted to try to learn more about the specific types of neurons found in the TRN, in hopes of finding new ways to treat hyperactivity and attention deficits. Currently, those symptoms are most often treated with stimulant drugs such as Ritalin, which have widespread effects throughout the brain.

“Our goal was to find some specific ways to modulate the function of thalamo-cortical output and relate it to neurodevelopmental disorders,” Feng says. “We decided to try using single-cell technology to dissect out what cell types are there, and what genes are expressed. Are there specific genes that are druggable as a target?”

To explore that possibility, the researchers sequenced the messenger RNA molecules found in neurons of the TRN, which reveals genes that are being expressed in those cells. This allowed them to identify hundreds of genes that could be used to differentiate the cells into two subpopulations, based on how strongly they express those particular genes.

They found that one of these cell populations is located in the core of the TRN, while the other forms a very thin layer surrounding the core. These two populations also form connections to different parts of the thalamus, the researchers found. Based on those connections, the researchers hypothesize that cells in the core are involved in relaying sensory information to the brain’s cortex, while cells in the outer layer appear to help coordinate information that comes in through different senses, such as vision and hearing.

“Druggable targets”

The researchers now plan to study the varying roles that these two populations of neurons may have in a variety of neurological symptoms, including attention deficits, hypersensitivity, and sleep disruption. Using genetic and optogenetic techniques, they hope to determine the effects of activating or inhibiting different TRN cell types, or genes expressed in those cells.

“That can help us in the future really develop specific druggable targets that can potentially modulate different functions,” Feng says. “Thalamo-cortical circuits control many different things, such as sensory perception, sleep, attention, and cognition, and it may be that these can be targeted more specifically.”

This approach could also be useful for treating attention or hypersensitivity disorders even when they aren’t caused by defects in TRN function, the researchers say.

“TRN is a target where if you enhance its function, you might be able to correct problems caused by impairments of the thalamo-cortical circuits,” Feng says. “Of course we are far away from the development of any kind of treatment, but the potential is that we can use single-cell technology to not only understand how the brain organizes itself, but also how brain functions can be segregated, allowing you to identify much more specific targets that modulate specific functions.”

The research was funded by the Simons Center for the Social Brain at MIT, the Hock E. Tan and K. Lisa Yang Center for Autism Research at MIT, the James and Patricia Poitras Center for Psychiatric Disorders Research at MIT, the Stanley Center for Psychiatric Research at the Broad Institute, the National Institutes of Health/National Institute for Mental Health, the Klarman Cell Observatory at the Broad Institute, the Pew Foundation, and the Human Frontiers Science Program.

MIT appoints 14 faculty members to named professorships

The School of Science has announced that 14 of its faculty members have been appointed to named professorships. The faculty members selected for these positions receive additional support to pursue their research and develop their careers.

Riccardo Comin is an assistant professor in the Department of Physics. He has been named a Class of 1947 Career Development Professor. This three-year professorship is granted in recognition of the recipient’s outstanding work in both research and teaching. Comin is interested in condensed matter physics. He uses experimental methods to synthesize new materials, as well as analysis through spectroscopy and scattering to investigate solid state physics. Specifically, the Comin lab attempts to discover and characterize electronic phases of quantum materials. Recently, his lab, in collaboration with colleagues, discovered that weaving a conductive material into a particular pattern known as the “kagome” pattern can result in quantum behavior when electricity is passed through.

Joseph Davis, assistant professor in the Department of Biology, has been named a Whitehead Career Development Professor. He looks at how cells build and deconstruct complex molecular machinery. The work of his lab group relies on biochemistry, biophysics, and structural approaches that include spectrometry and microscopy. A current project investigates the formation of the ribosome, an essential component in all cells. His work has implications for metabolic engineering, drug delivery, and materials science.

Lawrence Guth is now the Claude E. Shannon (1940) Professor of Mathematics. Guth explores harmonic analysis and combinatorics, and he is also interested in metric geometry and identifying connections between geometric inequalities and topology. The subject of metric geometry revolves around being able to estimate measurements, including length, area, volume and distance, and combinatorial geometry is essentially the estimation of the intersection of patters in simple shapes, including lines and circles.

Michael Halassa, an assistant professor in the Department of Brain and Cognitive Sciences, will hold the three-year Class of 1958 Career Development Professorship. His area of interest is brain circuitry. By investigating the networks and connections in the brain, he hopes to understand how they operate — and identify any ways in which they might deviate from normal operations, causing neurological and psychiatric disorders. Several publications from his lab discuss improvements in the treatment of the deleterious symptoms of autism spectrum disorder and schizophrenia, and his latest news provides insights on how the brain filters out distractions, particularly noise. Halassa is an associate investigator at the McGovern Institute for Brain Research and an affiliate member of the Picower Institute for Learning and Memory.

Sebastian Lourido, an assistant professor and the new Latham Family Career Development Professor in the Department of Biology for the next three years, works on treatments for infectious disease by learning about parasitic vulnerabilities. Focusing on human pathogens, Lourido and his lab are interested in what allows parasites to be so widespread and deadly, looking on a molecular level. This includes exploring how calcium regulates eukaryotic cells, which, in turn, affect processes such as muscle contraction and membrane repair, in addition to kinase responses.

Brent Minchew is named a Cecil and Ida Green Career Development Professor for a three-year term. Minchew, a faculty member in the Department of Earth, Atmospheric and Planetary Sciences, studies glaciers using remote sensing methods, such as interferometric synthetic aperture radar. His research into glaciers, including their mechanics, rheology, and interactions with their surrounding environment, extends as far as observing their responses to climate change. His group recently determined that Antarctica, in a worst-case scenario climate projection, would not contribute as much as predicted to rising sea level.

Elly Nedivi, a professor in the departments of Brain and Cognitive Sciences and Biology, has been named the inaugural William R. (1964) And Linda R. Young Professor. She works on brain plasticity, defined as the brain’s ability to adapt with experience, by identifying genes that play a role in plasticity and their neuronal and synaptic functions. In one of her lab’s recent publications, they suggest that variants of a particular gene may undermine expression or production of a protein, increasing the risk of bipolar disorder. In addition, she collaborates with others at MIT to develop new microscopy tools that allow better analysis of brain connectivity. Nedivi is also a member of the Picower Institute for Learning and Memory.

Andrei Negut has been named a Class of 1947 Career Development Professor for a three-year term. Negut, a member of the Department of Mathematics, fixates on problems in geometric representation theory. This topic requires investigation within algebraic geometry and representation theory simultaneously, with implications for mathematical physics, symplectic geometry, combinatorics and probability theory.

Matĕj Peč, the Victor P. Starr Career Development Professor in the Department of Earth, Atmospheric and Planetary Science until 2021, studies how the movement of the Earth’s tectonic plates affects rocks, mechanically and microstructurally. To investigate such a large-scale topic, he utilizes high-pressure, high-temperature experiments in a lab to simulate the driving forces associated with plate motion, and compares results with natural observations and theoretical modeling. His lab has identified a particular boundary beneath the Earth’s crust where rock properties shift from brittle, like peanut brittle, to viscous, like honey, and determined how that layer accommodates building strain between the two. In his investigations, he also considers the effect on melt generation miles underground.

Kerstin Perez has been named the three-year Class of 1948 Career Development Professor in the Department of Physics. Her research interest is dark matter. She uses novel analytical tools, such as those affixed on a balloon-borne instrument that can carry out processes similar to that of a particle collider (like the Large Hadron Collider) to detect new particle interactions in space with the help of cosmic rays. In another research project, Perez uses a satellite telescope array on Earth to search for X-ray signatures of mysterious particles. Her work requires heavy involvement with collaborative observatories, instruments, and telescopes. Perez is affiliated with the Kavli Institute for Astrophysics and Space Research.

Bjorn Poonen, named a Distinguished Professor of Science in the Department of Mathematics, studies number theory and algebraic geometry. He, his colleagues, and his lab members generate algorithms that can solve polynomial equations with the particular requirement that the solutions be rational numbers. These types of problems can be useful in encoding data. He also helps to determine what is undeterminable, that is exploring the limits of computing.

Daniel Suess, named a Class of 1948 Career Development Professor in the Department of Chemistry, uses molecular chemistry to explain global biogeochemical cycles. In the fields of inorganic and biological chemistry, Suess and his lab look into understanding complex and challenging reactions and clustering of particular chemical elements and their catalysts. Most notably, these reactions include those that are essential to solar fuels. Suess’s efforts to investigate both biological and synthetic systems have broad aims of both improving human health and decreasing environmental impacts.

Alison Wendlandt is the new holder of the five-year Cecil and Ida Green Career Development Professorship. In the Department of Chemistry, the Wendlandt research group focuses on physical organic chemistry and organic and organometallic synthesis to develop reaction catalysts. Her team fixates on designing new catalysts, identifying processes to which these catalysts can be applied, and determining principles that can expand preexisting reactions. Her team’s efforts delve into the fields of synthetic organic chemistry, reaction kinetics, and mechanics.

Julien de Wit, a Department of Earth, Atmospheric and Planetary Sciences assistant professor, has been named a Class of 1954 Career Development Professor. He combines math and science to answer questions about big-picture planetary questions. Using data science, de Wit develops new analytical techniques for mapping exoplanetary atmospheres, studies planet-star interactions of planetary systems, and determines atmospheric and planetary properties of exoplanets from spectroscopic information. He is a member of the scientific team involved in the Search for habitable Planets EClipsing ULtra-cOOl Stars (SPECULOOS) TRANsiting Planets and Planetesimals Small Telescope (TRAPPIST), made up of an international collection of observatories. He is affiliated with the Kavli Institute.

Drug combination reverses hypersensitivity to noise

People with autism often experience hypersensitivity to noise and other sensory input. MIT neuroscientists have now identified two brain circuits that help tune out distracting sensory information, and they have found a way to reverse noise hypersensitivity in mice by boosting the activity of those circuits.

One of the circuits the researchers identified is involved in filtering noise, while the other exerts top-down control by allowing the brain to switch its attention between different sensory inputs.

The researchers showed that restoring the function of both circuits worked much better than treating either circuit alone. This demonstrates the benefits of mapping and targeting multiple circuits involved in neurological disorders, says Michael Halassa, an assistant professor of brain and cognitive sciences and a member of MIT’s McGovern Institute for Brain Research.

“We think this work has the potential to transform how we think about neurological and psychiatric disorders, [so that we see them] as a combination of circuit deficits,” says Halassa, the senior author of the study. “The way we should approach these brain disorders is to map, to the best of our ability, what combination of deficits are there, and then go after that combination.”

MIT postdoc Miho Nakajima and research scientist L. Ian Schmitt are the lead authors of the paper, which appears in Neuron on Oct. 21. Guoping Feng, the James W. and Patricia Poitras Professor of Neuroscience and a member of the McGovern Institute, is also an author of the paper.


Many gene variants have been linked with autism, but most patients have very few, if any, of those variants. One of those genes is ptchd1, which is mutated in about 1 percent of people with autism. In a 2016 study, Halassa and Feng found that during development this gene is primarily expressed in a part of the thalamus called the thalamic reticular nucleus (TRN).

That study revealed that neurons of the TRN help the brain to adjust to changes in sensory input, such as noise level or brightness. In mice with ptchd1 missing, TRN neurons fire too fast, and they can’t adjust when noise levels change. This prevents the TRN from performing its usual sensory filtering function, Halassa says.

“Neurons that are there to filter out noise, or adjust the overall level of activity, are not adapting. Without the ability to fine-tune the overall level of activity, you can get overwhelmed very easily,” he says.

In the 2016 study, the researchers also found that they could restore some of the mice’s noise filtering ability by treating them with a drug called EBIO that activates neurons’ potassium channels. EBIO has harmful cardiac side effects so likely could not be used in human patients, but other drugs that boost TRN activity may have a similar beneficial effect on hypersensitivity, Halassa says.

In the new Neuron paper, the researchers delved more deeply into the effects of ptchd1, which is also expressed in the prefrontal cortex. To explore whether the prefrontal cortex might play a role in the animals’ hypersensitivity, the researchers used a task in which mice have to distinguish between three different tones, presented with varying amounts of background noise.

Normal mice can learn to use a cue that alerts them whenever the noise level is going to be higher, improving their overall performance on the task. A similar phenomenon is seen in humans, who can adjust better to noisier environments when they have some advance warning, Halassa says. However, mice with the ptchd1 mutation were unable to use these cues to improve their performance, even when their TRN deficit was treated with EBIO.

This suggested that another brain circuit must be playing a role in the animals’ ability to filter out distracting noise. To test the possibility that this circuit is located in the prefrontal cortex, the researchers recorded from neurons in that region while mice lacking ptch1 performed the task. They found that neuronal activity died out much faster in these mice than in the prefrontal cortex of normal mice. That led the researchers to test another drug, known as modafinil, which is FDA-approved to treat narcolepsy and is sometimes prescribed to improve memory and attention.

The researchers found that when they treated mice missing ptchd1 with both modafinil and EBIO, their hypersensitivity disappeared, and their performance on the task was the same as that of normal mice.

Targeting circuits

This successful reversal of symptoms suggests that the mice missing ptchd1 experience a combination of circuit deficits that each contribute differently to noise hypersensitivity. One circuit filters noise, while the other helps to control noise filtering based on external cues. Ptch1 mutations affect both circuits, in different ways that can be treated with different drugs.

Both of those circuits could also be affected by other genetic mutations that have been linked to autism and other neurological disorders, Halassa says. Targeting those circuits, rather than specific genetic mutations, may offer a more effective way to treat such disorders, he says.

“These circuits are important for moving things around the brain — sensory information, cognitive information, working memory,” he says. “We’re trying to reverse-engineer circuit operations in the service of figuring out what to do about a real human disease.”

He now plans to study circuit-level disturbances that arise in schizophrenia. That disorder affects circuits involving cognitive processes such as inference — the ability to draw conclusions from available information.

The research was funded by the Simons Center for the Social Brain at MIT, the Stanley Center for Psychiatric Research at the Broad Institute, the McGovern Institute for Brain Research at MIT, the Pew Foundation, the Human Frontiers Science Program, the National Institutes of Health, the James and Patricia Poitras Center for Psychiatric Disorders Research at MIT, a Japan Society for the Promotion of Science Fellowship, and a National Alliance for the Research of Schizophrenia and Depression Young Investigator Award.

How we tune out distractions

Imagine trying to focus on a friend’s voice at a noisy party, or blocking out the phone conversation of the person sitting next to you on the bus while you try to read. Both of these tasks require your brain to somehow suppress the distracting signal so you can focus on your chosen input.

MIT neuroscientists have now identified a brain circuit that helps us to do just that. The circuit they identified, which is controlled by the prefrontal cortex, filters out unwanted background noise or other distracting sensory stimuli. When this circuit is engaged, the prefrontal cortex selectively suppresses sensory input as it flows into the thalamus, the site where most sensory information enters the brain.

“This is a fundamental operation that cleans up all the signals that come in, in a goal-directed way,” says Michael Halassa, an assistant professor of brain and cognitive sciences, a member of MIT’s McGovern Institute for Brain Research, and the senior author of the study.

The researchers are now exploring whether impairments of this circuit may be involved in the hypersensitivity to noise and other stimuli that is often seen in people with autism.

Miho Nakajima, an MIT postdoc, is the lead author of the paper, which appears in the June 12 issue of Neuron. Research scientist L. Ian Schmitt is also an author of the paper.

Shifting attention

Our brains are constantly bombarded with sensory information, and we are able to tune out much of it automatically, without even realizing it. Other distractions that are more intrusive, such as your seatmate’s phone conversation, require a conscious effort to suppress.

In a 2015 paper, Halassa and his colleagues explored how attention can be consciously shifted between different types of sensory input, by training mice to switch their focus between a visual and auditory cue. They found that during this task, mice suppress the competing sensory input, allowing them to focus on the cue that will earn them a reward.

This process appeared to originate in the prefrontal cortex (PFC), which is critical for complex cognitive behavior such as planning and decision-making. The researchers also found that a part of the thalamus that processes vision was inhibited when the animals were focusing on sound cues. However, there are no direct physical connections from the prefrontal cortex to the sensory thalamus, so it was unclear exactly how the PFC was exerting this control, Halassa says.

In the new study, the researchers again trained mice to switch their attention between visual and auditory stimuli, then mapped the brain connections that were involved. They first examined the outputs of the PFC that were essential for this task, by systematically inhibiting PFC projection terminals in every target. This allowed them to discover that the PFC connection to a brain region known as the striatum is necessary to suppress visual input when the animals are paying attention to the auditory cue.

Further mapping revealed that the striatum then sends input to a region called the globus pallidus, which is part of the basal ganglia. The basal ganglia then suppress activity in the part of the thalamus that processes visual information.

Using a similar experimental setup, the researchers also identified a parallel circuit that suppresses auditory input when animals pay attention to the visual cue. In that case, the circuit travels through parts of the striatum and thalamus that are associated with processing sound, rather than vision.

The findings offer some of the first evidence that the basal ganglia, which are known to be critical for planning movement, also play a role in controlling attention, Halassa says.

“What we realized here is that the connection between PFC and sensory processing at this level is mediated through the basal ganglia, and in that sense, the basal ganglia influence control of sensory processing,” he says. “We now have a very clear idea of how the basal ganglia can be involved in purely attentional processes that have nothing to do with motor preparation.”

Noise sensitivity

The researchers also found that the same circuits are employed not only for switching between different types of sensory input such as visual and auditory stimuli, but also for suppressing distracting input within the same sense — for example, blocking out background noise while focusing on one person’s voice.

The team also showed that when the animals are alerted that the task is going to be noisy, their performance actually improves, as they use this circuit to focus their attention.

“This study uses a dazzling array of techniques for neural circuit dissection to identify a distributed pathway, linking the prefrontal cortex to the basal ganglia to the thalamic reticular nucleus, that allows the mouse brain to enhance relevant sensory features and suppress distractors at opportune moments,” says Daniel Polley, an associate professor of otolaryngology at Harvard Medical School, who was not involved in the research. “By paring down the complexities of the sensory stimulus only to its core relevant features in the thalamus — before it reaches the cortex — our cortex can more efficiently encode just the essential features of the sensory world.”

Halassa’s lab is now doing similar experiments in mice that are genetically engineered to develop symptoms similar to those of people with autism. One common feature of autism spectrum disorder is hypersensitivity to noise, which could be caused by impairments of this brain circuit, Halassa says. He is now studying whether boosting the activity of this circuit might reduce sensitivity to noise.

“Controlling noise is something that patients with autism have trouble with all the time,” he says. “Now there are multiple nodes in the pathway that we can start looking at to try to understand this.”

The research was funded by the National Institutes of Mental Health, the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke, the Simons Foundation, the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation, the Esther A. and Joseph Klingenstein Fund, and the Human Frontier Science Program.

Halassa named Max Planck Fellow

Michael Halassa was just appointed as one of the newest Max Planck Fellows. His appointment comes through the Max Planck Florida Institute for Neuroscience (MPFI), which aims to forge collaborations between exceptional neuroscientists from around the world to answer fundamental questions about brain development and function. The Max Planck Society selects cutting edge, active researchers from other institutions to fellow positions for a five-year period to promote interactions and synergies. While the program is a longstanding feature of the Max Planck Society, Halassa, and fellow appointee Yi Guo of the University of California, Santa Cruz, are the first selected fellows that are based at U.S. institutions.

Michael Halassa is an associate investigator at the McGovern Institute and an assistant professor in the Department of Brain and Cognitive Sciences at MIT. Halassa’s research focuses on the neural architectures that underlie complex cognitive processes. He is particularly interested in goal-directed attention, our ability to rapidly switch attentional focus based on high level objectives. For example, when you are in a roomful of colleagues, the mention of your name in a distant conversation can quickly trigger your ‘mind’s ear’ to eavesdrop into that conversation. This contrasts with hearing a name that sounds like yours on television, which does not usually grab your attention in the same way. In certain mental disorders such as schizophrenia, the ability to generate such high-level objectives, while also accounting for context, is perturbed. Recent evidence strongly suggests that impaired function of the prefrontal cortex and its interactions with a region of the brain called the thalamus may be altered in such disorders. It is this thalamocortical network that Halassa has been studying in mice, where his group has uncovered how the thalamus supports the ability of the prefrontal cortex to generate context-appropriate attentional signals.

The fellowship will support extending Halassa’s work into the tree shrew (Tupaia belangeri), which has been shown to have advanced cognitive abilities compared to mice while also offering many of the circuit-interrogation tools that make the mouse an attractive experimental model.

The Max Planck Florida Institute for Neuroscience (MPFI), a not-for-profit research organization, is part of the world-renowned Max Planck Society, Germany’s most successful research organization. The Max Planck Society was founded in 1911, and comprises 84 institutes and research facilities. While primarily located in Germany, there are 4 institutes and one research facility located aboard, including the Florida Institute that Halassa will collaborate with. The fellow positions were created with the goal of increasing interactions between the Max Planck Society and its institutes with faculty engaged in active research at other universities and institutions, which with this appointment now include MIT.

Michael Halassa

Flexible Thinking

Michael Halassa’s research is focused on the neural basis of cognitive control and flexibility, particularly in attention and decision-making. At a party, for example, it may be possible to talk to one person, but selectively listen to a different conversation happening nearby. It is this ability to switch our attention with agility that Halassa studies in his lab.

He has developed behavioral models of cognitive function in mice, allowing him to probe the underlying neural circuits and computations using behaviorial analysis, electrophysiology, and genetics. His work has revealed a new role for the thalamus – once considered a simple relay station for sensory information – in initiating, sustaining and switching cognitive representations. He also studies how attention and cognitive flexibility are disrupted in disorders including schizophrenia, autism, and ADHD.

How the brain switches between different sets of rules

Cognitive flexibility — the brain’s ability to switch between different rules or action plans depending on the context — is key to many of our everyday activities. For example, imagine you’re driving on a highway at 65 miles per hour. When you exit onto a local street, you realize that the situation has changed and you need to slow down.

When we move between different contexts like this, our brain holds multiple sets of rules in mind so that it can switch to the appropriate one when necessary. These neural representations of task rules are maintained in the prefrontal cortex, the part of the brain responsible for planning action.

A new study from MIT has found that a region of the thalamus is key to the process of switching between the rules required for different contexts. This region, called the mediodorsal thalamus, suppresses representations that are not currently needed. That suppression also protects the representations as a short-term memory that can be reactivated when needed.

“It seems like a way to toggle between irrelevant and relevant contexts, and one advantage is that it protects the currently irrelevant representations from being overwritten,” says Michael Halassa, an assistant professor of brain and cognitive sciences and a member of MIT’s McGovern Institute for Brain Research.

Halassa is the senior author of the paper, which appears in the Nov. 19 issue of Nature Neuroscience. The paper’s first author is former MIT graduate student Rajeev Rikhye, who is now a postdoc in Halassa’s lab. Aditya Gilra, a postdoc at the University of Bonn, is also an author.

Changing the rules

Previous studies have found that the prefrontal cortex is essential for cognitive flexibility, and that a part of the thalamus called the mediodorsal thalamus also contributes to this ability. In a 2017 study published in Nature, Halassa and his colleagues showed that the mediodorsal thalamus helps the prefrontal cortex to keep a thought in mind by temporarily strengthening the neuronal connections in the prefrontal cortex that encode that particular thought.

In the new study, Halassa wanted to further investigate the relationship between the mediodorsal thalamus and the prefrontal cortex. To do that, he created a task in which mice learn to switch back and forth between two different contexts — one in which they must follow visual instructions and one in which they must follow auditory instructions.

In each trial, the mice are given both a visual target (flash of light to the right or left) and an auditory target (a tone that sweeps from high to low pitch, or vice versa). These targets offer conflicting instructions. One tells the mouse to go to the right to get a reward; the other tells it to go left. Before each trial begins, the mice are given a cue that tells them whether to follow the visual or auditory target.

“The only way for the animal to solve the task is to keep the cue in mind over the entire delay, until the targets are given,” Halassa says.

The researchers found that thalamic input is necessary for the mice to successfully switch from one context to another. When they suppressed the mediodorsal thalamus during the cuing period of a series of trials in which the context did not change, there was no effect on performance. However, if they suppressed the mediodorsal thalamus during the switch to a different context, it took the mice much longer to switch.

By recording from neurons of the prefrontal cortex, the researchers found that when the mediodorsal thalamus was suppressed, the representation of the old context in the prefrontal cortex could not be turned off, making it much harder to switch to the new context.

In addition to helping the brain switch between contexts, this process also appears to help maintain the neural representation of the context that is not currently being used, so that it doesn’t get overwritten, Halassa says. This allows it to be activated again when needed. The mice could maintain these representations over hundreds of trials, but the next day, they had to relearn the rules associated with each context.

Sabine Kastner, a professor of psychology at the Princeton Neuroscience Institute, described the study as a major leap forward in the field of cognitive neuroscience.

“This is a tour-de-force from beginning to end, starting with a sophisticated behavioral design, state-of-the-art methods including causal manipulations, exciting empirical results that point to cell-type specific differences and interactions in functionality between thalamus and cortex, and a computational approach that links the neuroscience results to the field of artificial intelligence,” says Kastner, who was not involved in the research.

Multitasking AI

The findings could help guide the development of better artificial intelligence algorithms, Halassa says. The human brain is very good at learning many different kinds of tasks — singing, walking, talking, etc. However, neural networks (a type of artificial intelligence based on interconnected nodes similar to neurons) usually are good at learning only one thing. These networks are subject to a phenomenon called “catastrophic forgetting” — when they try to learn a new task, previous tasks become overwritten.

Halassa and his colleagues now hope to apply their findings to improve neural networks’ ability to store previously learned tasks while learning to perform new ones.

The research was funded by the National Institutes of Health, the Brain and Behavior Foundation, the Klingenstein Foundation, the Pew Foundation, the Simons Foundation, the Human Frontiers Science Program, and the German Ministry of Education.

Tracking down changes in ADHD

Attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) is marked by difficulty maintaining focus on tasks, and increased activity and impulsivity. These symptoms ultimately interfere with the ability to learn and function in daily tasks, but the source of the problem could lie at different levels of brain function, and it is hard to parse out exactly what is going wrong.

A new study co-authored by McGovern Institute Associate Investigator Michael Halassa has managed to develop tasks that dissociate lower from higher level brain functions so that disruption to these processes can be more specifically checked in ADHD. The results of this study, carried out in collaboration with co-corresponding authors Wei Ji Ma, Andra Mihali and researchers from New York University, illuminate how brain function is disrupted in ADHD, and highlights a role for perceptual deficits in this condition.

The underlying deficit in ADHD has largely been attributed to executive function — higher order processing and the ability of the brain to integrate information and focus attention. But there have been some hints, largely through reports from those with ADHD, that the very ability to accurately receive sensory information, might be altered. Some people with ADHD, for example, have reported impaired visual function and even changes in color processing. Cleanly separating these perceptual brain functions from the impact of higher order cognitive processes has proven difficult, however. It is not clear whether people with and without ADHD encode visual signals received by the eye in the same way.

“We realized that psychiatric diagnoses in general are based on clinical criteria and patient self-reporting,” says Halassa, who is also a board certified psychiatrist and an assistant professor in MIT’s Department of Brain and Cognitive Sciences. “Psychiatric diagnoses are imprecise, but neurobiology is progressing to the point where we can use well-controlled parameters to standardize criteria, and relate disorders to circuits,” he explains. “If there are problems with attention, is it the spotlight of attention itself that’s affected in ADHD, or the ability of a person to control where this spotlight is focused?”

To test how people with and without ADHD encode visual signals in the brain, Halassa, Ma, Mihali, and collaborators devised a perceptual encoding task in which subjects were asked to provide answers to simple questions about the orientation and color of lines and shapes on a screen. The simplicity of this test aimed to remove high-level cognitive input and provide a measure of accurate perceptual coding.

To measure higher-level executive function, the researchers provided subjects with rules about which features and screen areas were relevant to the task, and they switched relevance throughout the test. They monitored whether subjects cognitively adapted to the switch in rules – an indication of higher-order brain function. The authors also analyzed psychometric curve parameters, common in psychophysics, but not yet applied to ADHD.

“These psychometric parameters give us specific information about the parts of sensory processing that are being affected,” explains Halassa. “So, if you were to put on sunglasses, that would shift threshold, indicating that input is being affected, but this wouldn’t necessarily affect the slope of the psychometric function. If the slope is affected, this starts to reflect difficulty in seeing a line or color. In other words, these tests give us a finer readout of behavior, and how to map this onto particular circuits.”

The authors found that changes in visual perception were robustly associated with ADHD, and these changes were also correlated with cognitive function. Individuals with more clinically severe ADHD scored lower on executive function, and basic perception also tracked with these clinical records of disease severity. The authors could even sort ADHD from control subjects, based on their perceptual variability alone. All of this goes to say that changes in perception itself are clearly present in this ADHD cohort, and that they decline alongside changes in executive function.

“This was unexpected,” points out Halassa. “We didn’t expect so much to be explained by lower sensitivity to stimuli, and to see that these tasks become harder as cognitive pressure increases. It wasn’t clear that cognitive circuits might influence processing of stimuli.”

Understanding the true basis of changes in behavior in disorders such as ADHD can be hard to tease apart, but the study gives more insight into changes in the ADHD brain, and supports the idea that quantitative follow up on self-reporting by patients can drive a stronger understanding — and possible targeted treatment — of such disorders. Testing a larger number of ADHD patients and validating these measures on a larger scale is now the next research priority.