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Synthetic Neurobiology: Optically Engineering the Brain to Augment Its Function

Posted Dec 07 2009 9:40pm
In this talk at the Singularity Summit 2009, Ed Boyden discusses exciting new brain-computer interfacing techniques.

How to engineer intelligent neurotechnologies to repair pathology, augment cognition, and reveal insights into the human condition (from Synthetic Neurobiology Group at MIT):
Our brains and nervous systems mediate everything we perceive, feel, decide, and do—and act as our ultimate interface to the world. An outstanding challenge for humanity is to understand these neuromedia interfaces at a level of abstraction that enables us to engineer their functions: repairing pathology, augmenting cognition, and revealing insights into the human condition. The Synthetic Neurobiology group invents and applies tools to analyze and engineer brain circuits in both humans and model systems. Our current neuroengineering focus is on devising technologies for controlling the processing within specific neural circuit targets in the brain. We hope that this synthetic neurobiology approach to the brain will help us better understand—and engineer improvements upon—the nature of human existence.

Neural stimulation hardware has traditionally been either electrical or magnetic in nature. Our lab has recently developed optogenetic molecular methods for making neurons able to be activated or silenced by multiple colors of light. We are engineering optical hardware systems for targetedly stimulating and inactivating neurons precisely, from one to many at a time, with complex spatiotemporal patterns, even in dense tissue in the living brain. Our goal is to find ways to cure intractable psychiatric and neurological disorders.


Ed Boyden
MIT Media Lab & Dept. of Biological Engineering

Ed Boyden invents and applies tools for the analysis and engineering of brain circuits in humans and research animals. He is developing new strategies for systematically repairing brain pathologies, such as epilepsy, anxiety, and Parkinson’s disease, and also for augmenting cognition in diseases like Alzheimer’s. His research integrates nanotechnological, molecular, optical, and other technologies into interfaces for the precise control of neural circuit dynamics and function. He and his colleagues have created a genetically targeted way to activate and inactivate neurons using millisecond-timescale pulses of light. This innovation is now in widespread use.

Dr. Boyden is the Benesse Career Development Professor at the MIT Media Lab, in the MIT Department of Biological Engineering, and the MIT McGovern Institute. He received a Ph.D. in Neuroscience from Stanford University in 2005. He holds a double B.S. in Physics and Electrical Engineering and Computer Science and a M.Eng. in Electrical Engineering and Computer Science from MIT. In 2006 he was named one of the world’s top 35 innovators under age 35 by Technology Review magazine. In 2007, he received a Wallace H. Coulter Early Career Award, an NIH Director’s New Innovator Award, and the Society for Neuroscience Research Award for Innovation in Neuroscience, for his work on optical control of neurons.
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