160224_KDB_BOYLEN_010-1024x576 Ed Boyden on Brain StudyEd Boyden leads the Synthetic Neurobiology Group.  This group develops tools for analyzing and repairing complex biological systems, such as the brain. His group applies these tools in order to reveal scientific understandings of biological systems.  Most notably, this reveals radical new approaches for curing diseases and repairing disabilities.  In addition, Boyden co-directs the MIT Center for Neurobiological Engineering, which aims to develop new tools to accelerate neuroscience progress.

Boyden is highly recognized for his work.  In 2006, he made the Technology Review World’s “Top 35 Innovators under Age 35” list.  In 2013, he obtained the Jacob Heskel Gabbay Award.  Furthermore, he was awarded the Grete Lundbeck Brain Prize and the NIH Director’s Pioneer Award. He made the World Economic Forum Young Scientist list in 2013. In 2015, he earned the Carnegie Prize in Mind and Brain Sciences.  He received the Breakthrough Prize in Life Sciences (2016) and the BBVA Foundation Frontiers of Knowledge Award (2015).  He has contributed to over 300 peer-reviewed papers, patents and articles.  Furthermore, he has given over 300 invited talks on his group’s work. Boyden holds a Ph.D. in neurosciences from Stanford.  Before that, he received three degrees from MIT.

Pinpointing Changes in the Brain

In his TED Talk, “A New Way to Study the Brain’s Secrets,” Boyden discusses how the same polymers used to make baby diapers swell could be a key to better understanding our brains. By physically enlarging the brain’s tiny biomolecules responsible for generating emotions, thoughts, and feelings, we could discover the molecular changes that lead to disorders like epilepsy and Alzheimer’s.

“Diapers are made out of a thing called a swell-able material,”says Boyden. “It’s a special kind of material that, when you add water, it will swell up enormously, maybe a thousand times in volume. And this is a very useful, industrial kind of polymer. But what we’re trying to do in my group at MIT is to figure out if we can do something similar to the brain. Can we make it bigger, big enough that you can peer inside and see all the tiny building blocks, the biomolecules?  How they’re organized in three dimensions, the structure, the ground truth structure of the brain, if you will?

“If we could get that, maybe we could have a better understanding of how the brain is organized to yield thoughts and emotions and actions and sensations,” continues Boyden. “Maybe we could try to pinpoint the exact changes in the brain that result in diseases.  Diseases like Alzheimer’s and epilepsy and Parkinson’s, for which there are few treatments, much less cures, and for which, very often, we don’t know the cause or the origins and what’s really causing them to occur.”


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