An interview with Ed Boyden

Boyden received the inaugural A. F. Harvey Engineering Prize for his contribution to the development of optogenetics.
June 27, 2012 | Source: The Guardian
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Ed Boyden is Associate Professor of Biological Engineering and Brain and Cognitive Sciences, at the MIT Media Lab and the MIT McGovern Institute. He leads the Synthetic Neurobiology Group, which develops tools for analyzing and engineering the circuits of the brain (credit: Ed Boyden)

Earlier this week, Ed Boyden of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology received the inaugural A. F. Harvey Engineering Research Prize. The £300,000 prize was awarded to him by the Institute of Engineering and Technology, for his contribution to the development of optogenetics.

This powerful technique involves introducing light-sensitive algal proteins into specific subsets of neurons, enabling them to be controlled with unprecedented precision using pulses of laser light.

Boyden comments:

We’ve been collaborating with a group from the University of Alberta to mine plant genomes to look for new light-activated proteins to see if we can expand the color separation to get true two-color activation. We’re also looking to see if we can get molecules that are much more light-sensitive.

A second area we’ve been working on is microfabrication of devices containing arrays of hundreds or even thousands of light sources that can be distributed to input into the brain more detailed patterns of activity that resemble the neural code itself. We think that’ll be very important for testing hypotheses of neural coding. Can we also build better prosthetics that enable us to repair neural computations in complicated disorders such as stroke or Alzheimer’s Disease? For that, the ability to deliver information to many thousands of sites in the brain could be of great use.

We’re interested in taking this automation in new directions. If we had the ability to survey cell-to-cell contacts in an automated fashion and could extend that to the proteomic and transcriptomic contents of a cell, maybe we could start to build a parts list for the brain — findings out the numbers and kinds of cells in given circuits within different regions of the cortex, and the proteins and transmitter molecules within those cells would help us start to figure out how they work together.

Brain coprocessor

One of our main technological dreams in the lab would be to have devices that can very intimately interface with entire neural circuits at single cell resolution. One would be to understand how all the cells in a circuit work together to implement a computation or how they go awry in a brain disorder state. What I’m really interested in is this idea of a “brain co-processor” — a device that can record from, and deliver information to, so many points in the brain, with a computational infrastructure in between — a computer that can process the information and compute exactly what needs to be restored.

There are a couple of big challenges. The two most obvious challenges are delivering genes that encode for these light-sensitive proteins to specific cells.

The second, and possibly bigger question, is will these gene products — which come from fungi, bacteria, and so on — be detected as foreign proteins that give rise to immune responses when introduced into the human body?