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MIT Course Catalog 2014-2015

Home > Degree Programs > Science > Brain & Cognitive Sciences

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Department of Brain and Cognitive Sciences

The study of mind, brain, and behavior has grown in recent years with unprecedented speed. New avenues of approach, opened by developments in the biological and computer sciences, raise the hope that human beings, who have achieved considerable mastery over the world around them, may also come closer to an understanding of themselves. The goal of the Department of Brain and Cognitive Sciences is to answer fundamental questions concerning intelligent processes and brain organization. To this end, the department focuses on four themes: molecular and cellular neuroscience, systems neuroscience, cognitive science, and computation. Several members of the department's faculty are affiliated with two major research centers: the Picower Institute for Learning and Memory and the McGovern Institute for Brain Research.

Research in cellular neuroscience deals with the biology of neurons, emphasizing the special properties of these cells as encoders, transmitters, and processors of information. Departmental researchers apply techniques of contemporary molecular and cellular biology to problems of neuronal development, structure, and function, resulting in new understanding of the underlying basic components of the nervous system and their interactions. These studies have profound clinical implications, in part by generating a framework for the treatment of neurological and psychiatric disorders. Primary areas of interest include the development and plasticity of neuronal morphology and connectivity, the cellular and molecular bases of behavior in simple neuronal circuits, neurochemistry, and cellular physiology.

In the area of systems neuroscience, departmental investigators use a number of new approaches ranging from computation through electrophysiology to biophysics. Of major interest are the visual and motor systems where the scientific goals are to understand transduction and encoding of sensory stimuli into nerve messages, organization and development of sensorimotor systems, processing of sensorimotor information, and the sensorimotor performance of organisms. Also of major interest is neuromodulatory regulation, where the scientific goal is to understand the effects of rewarding or stressful environments on brain circuits.

In computation and cognitive science, particularly strong interactions exist between the Department of Brain and Cognitive Sciences, the Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory, and the Center for Biological and Computational Learning, providing new intellectual approaches in areas including vision and motor control, and biological and computer learning. Computational theories are developed and tested within the framework of neurophysiological, psychological, and other experimental approaches. In the study of vision and motor control, complementary experimental work includes single-cell and multiple-cell neurophysiological recording as well as functional brain imaging. In the area of learning, which is seen as central to intelligent behavior, departmental researchers are working to develop theories of vision, motor control, neural circuitry, and language within an experimental framework.

In cognitive science, human experimentation is combined with formal and computational analyses to understand complex intelligent processes such as language, reasoning, memory, and visual information processing. There are applications in the fields of education, artificial intelligence, human-machine interaction, and in the treatment of language, cognitive, and other disorders.

Subfields in cognitive science include psycholinguistics, comprising sentence and word processing, language acquisition, and aphasia; visual cognition, including reading, imagery, attention, and perception of complex patterns such as faces, objects, and scenes; spatial cognition; memory; and the nature and development of concepts. Another key field is the study of perception—developmental and processing approaches focus on human and machine vision, and how visual images are encoded, stored, and retrieved, with current topics that include motion analysis, stereopsis, perceptual organization, and perceptual similarity. Other research includes functional brain imaging in normal subjects as well as studies of neurologically impaired patients in an attempt to understand brain mechanisms underlying normal human sensation, perception, cognition, action, and affect.

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Undergraduate Study

Bachelor of Science in Brain and Cognitive Sciences/Course 9
[see degree chart]

Brain science and cognitive science are complementary and interactive in their research objectives. Both approaches examine perception, performance, and intervening processes in humans and animals. Central issues in the discipline include the interpretation of sensory experience; the reception, manipulation, storage, and retrieval of information within the nervous system; and the planning and execution of motor activity. Higher level functions include the development of formal and informal reasoning skills; and the structure, acquisition, use, and internal representation of human language.

The Bachelor of Science in Brain and Cognitive Sciences prepares students to pursue advanced degrees or careers in neuroscience, medicine, cognitive science, psychology, linguistics, philosophy, or aspects of artificial intelligence (particularly those aspects concerned with vision) as well as for further work in the area of efficient human-machine interaction.

Methods of inquiry in the brain and cognitive sciences are drawn from molecular, cellular, and systems neuroscience; cognitive and perceptual psychology; computer science and artificial intelligence; linguistics; philosophy of language and mind; and mathematics. The undergraduate program is designed to provide instruction in the relevant aspects of these various disciplines. The program is administered by an Undergraduate Officer and an Undergraduate Administrator, consulting as necessary with faculty members from these disciplines who also serve as advisors to majors, helping them select a coherent set of subjects from within the requirements, including a research requirement. Members of the faculty are available to guide the research.

The BCS major incorporates programming and computational skills to meet the increasing demands for those skills in both graduate school and the workforce. The major offers a tiered system of subjects with enough flexibility to allow multiple avenues through the Brain and Cognitive Sciences curriculum, meeting the divergent goals of BCS students. Individual guidance regarding career goals is available from faculty and the Global Education and Career Development Office.

Minor in Brain and Cognitive Sciences

The Minor in Brain and Cognitive Sciences consists of six subjects arranged in two levels of study, intended to provide students breadth in the field as a whole and some depth in an area of specialization.

Core Subjects (3)

9.00   Introduction to Psychological Science
9.01   Introduction to Neuroscience
9.40   Introduction to Neural Computation

Specialized Subjects (3)
Select any combination of three subjects from Tier 2 and/or Tier 3 of the undergraduate degree program

Tier 2 Subjects

9.04   Sensory Systems
9.07   Statistics for Brain and Cognitive Science
9.09J   Cellular and Molecular Neurobiology
9.10   Cognitive Neuroscience
9.14   Brain Structure and Its Origins
9.15   Neuromodulatory and Neuroendocrine Systems
9.16   Cellular Neurophysiology
9.18J   Developmental Neurobiology
9.20   Animal Behavior
9.31   Neurophysiology of Learning and Memory
9.35   Perceptual Systems
9.54   Computational Aspects of Biological Learning
9.65   Cognitive Processes
9.66J   Computational Cognitive Science
9.85   Infant and Early Childhood Cognition

Tier 3 Subjects

9.24   Disorders and Diseases of the Nervous System
9.26J   Principles and Applications of Genetic Engineering for Biotechnology and Neuroscience
9.28   Current Topics in Developmental Neurobiology
9.46   Neuroscience of Morality
9.56J   Abnormal Language
9.57J   Language Acquisition
9.71   Functional MRI Investigations of the Human Brain
9.77   Computational Perception

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Graduate Study

The Department of Brain and Cognitive Sciences offers programs of study leading to the doctoral degree in neuroscience or cognitive science. Areas of research specialization include cellular and molecular neuroscience, systems neuroscience, computation, and cognitive science. The graduate programs are designed to prepare participants to teach and to do original research.

Doctor of Philosophy

The departmental PhD program can normally be completed with four to six years of full-time work, including summers. Institute requirements for the PhD are given in the section on General Degree Requirements under Graduate Education in Part 1. Formal coursework, described below, is intended to prepare the student to pass the general examinations and do original thesis research. The written general examinations will be due in August of the second year.

All students start with a first-term intensive core subject that provides an introduction to brain and behavioral studies from the viewpoint of systems neuroscience. In the fall and/or spring term, students may choose between two core subjects: a two-term core subject covering molecular and cellular neuroscience or a one-term core subject covering cognitive science. Incoming graduate students are encouraged to take all three within the first two years of study. Further coursework will be diversified to give each individual the appropriate background for research in his or her own area.

Coursework in cellular and molecular neuroscience emphasizes the current genetic, molecular, and cellular approaches to biological systems that are necessary to generate advances in neuroscience.

Training in systems neuroscience covers neuroanatomy, neurophysiology, and neurotransmitter chemistry, concentrating on the major sensory and motor systems in the vertebrate brain. Specific ties to molecular neurobiology or computation may be emphasized, depending upon the research interests of the student.

Coursework for students in computation is intended to give both an understanding of empirical approaches to the study of the vertebrate brain and animal behavior and a theoretical background for analyzing computational aspects of biological information processing.

Candidates studying cognitive science take coursework covering such topics as language processing, language acquisition, cognitive development, natural computation, neural networks, connectionist models, and visual information processing. Students also choose seminars and coursework in linguistics, philosophy, logic, mathematics, or computer science, depending on the individual student's research program.

Graduate students begin a research apprenticeship immediately upon arrival with lab rotations in the first year, after which time advisor assignments are made based upon a match of interests. These assignments may change as a student's goals become more focused. At the end of the first year, an advisory committee of two to four faculty members is formed. This committee monitors progress and, with membership changing as necessary, evolves into the thesis committee. Thesis research normally requires 24–36 months of full-time activity after the qualifying examinations have been passed. It is expected that the research embodied in the PhD dissertation be original and significant work, publishable in scientific journals.

Assistantships and Fellowships

Financial assistance is provided to qualified applicants in the form of traineeships, research assistantships, teaching assistantships, and a limited number of fellowships, subject to availability of funds. Prospective students are encouraged to apply for individual fellowships such as those sponsored by the National Science Foundation and the National Defense Science and Engineering Graduate Fellowship Program to cover all or part of the cost of their education. The department's financial resources for non-US citizens are limited; international students are strongly encouraged to seek financial assistance for all or part of the cost of their education from non-MIT sources.


For additional information regarding teaching and research programs, contact the Academic Administrator, Department of Brain and Cognitive Sciences, Room 46-2005, 617-253-5741, or visit

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Faculty and Staff

Faculty and Teaching Staff

James DiCarlo, MD, PhD
Professor of Neuroscience
Department Head

Michale Fee, PhD
Professor of Neuroscience
Associate Department Head for Education

Laura Schulz, PhD
Associate Professor of Cognitive Science
MacVicar Faculty Fellow
Undergraduate Officer

Matthew Wilson, PhD
Sherman Fairchild Professor of Neuroscience and Biology
Associate Director, Picower Institute for Learning and Memory
Graduate Officer


Edward H. Adelson, PhD
John and Dorothy Wilson Professor of Vision Science

Mark Bear, PhD
Picower Professor of Neuroscience
Howard Hughes Medical Institute Investigator

Robert Cregar Berwick, PhD
Professor of Computational Linguistics and Computer Science and Engineering

Emilio Bizzi, MD, PhD
Institute Professor

Emery N. Brown, MD, PhD
Edward Hood Taplin Professor of Medical Engineering
Professor of Computational Neuroscience
Associate Director, Institute for Medical Engineering and Science

Martha Constantine-Paton, PhD
Professor of Neuroscience

Robert Desimone, PhD
Doris and Don Berkey Professor of Neuroscience
Director, McGovern Institute for Brain Research

Guoping Feng, PhD
Poitras Professor of Neuroscience
Associate Member, Broad Institute

John D. E. Gabrieli, PhD
Grover Hermann Professor in Health Sciences and Technology and Cognitive Neuroscience
Director, Martinos Imaging Center at the McGovern Institute for Brain Research

Edward A. F. Gibson, PhD
Professor of Cognitive Science

Ann Martin Graybiel, PhD
Institute Professor

Susan Hockfield, PhD
Professor of Neuroscience
MIT President, Emerita

Neville J. Hogan, PhD
Sun Jae Professor of Mechanical Engineering
Professor of Brain and Cognitive Sciences
Director, Newman Laboratory for Biomechanics and Human Rehabilitation

Nancy G. Kanwisher, PhD
Walter A. Rosenblith Professor of Cognitive Neuroscience

J. Troy Littleton, MD, PhD
Professor of Biology and Brain and Cognitive Sciences

Earl K. Miller, PhD
Picower Professor of Neuroscience

Elly Nedivi, PhD
Professor of Neuroscience

Tomaso Armando Poggio, PhD
Eugene McDermott Professor in the Brain Sciences and Human Behavior
Director, Center for Brains, Minds and Machines

Molly Potter, PhD
Professor of Psychology

Drazen Prelec, PhD
Digital Equipment Corporation Leaders for Global Operations Professor of Management
Professor of Management Science, Economics, and Brain and Cognitive Sciences

William G. Quinn, PhD
Professor of Neurobiology

Gerald Edward Schneider, PhD
Professor of Neuroscience

H. Sebastian Seung, PhD
Professor of Computational Neuroscience and Physics

Pawan Sinha, PhD
Professor of Vision and Computational Neuroscience

Jean-Jacques Slotine, PhD
Professor of Mechanical Engineering and Information Sciences
Director, Nonlinear Systems Laboratory

Mriganka Sur, PhD
Paul E. Newton Professor of Neuroscience
Associate Member, Broad Institute
Director, Simons Center for the Social Brain

Joshua Tenenbaum, PhD
Professor of Cognitive Science and Computation

Susumu Tonegawa, PhD
Picower Professor of Biology and Neuroscience
Howard Hughes Medical Institute Investigator
Director, RIKEN-MIT Center for Neural Circuit Genetics

Li-Huei Tsai, PhD
Picower Professor of Neuroscience
Senior Associate Member, Broad Institute
Director, Picower Institute for Learning and Memory

Kenneth N. Wexler, PhD
Professor of Psychology and Linguistics

Associate Professors

Edward S. Boyden III, PhD
AT&T Career Development Associate Professor of Research and Education
Associate Professor of Media Arts and Sciences, Biological Engineering, and Brain and Cognitive Sciences
Associate Member, Broad Institute

Alan P. Jasanoff, PhD
Associate Professor of Biological Engineering, Brain and Cognitive Sciences, and Nuclear Science and Engineering

Rebecca R. Saxe, PhD
Associate Professor of Cognitive Science

Assistant Professors

Gloria Choi, PhD
Assistant Professor of Neuroscience

Kwanghun Chung, PhD
Hermann L. F. von Helmholtz Assistant Professor of Chemical Engineering and Brain and Cognitive Sciences
Associate Member, Broad Institute

Ki Ann Goosens, PhD
Assistant Professor of Neuroscience

Myriam Heiman, PhD
Assistant Professor of Neuroscience
Core Member, Broad Institute

Mehrdad Jazayeri, PhD
Assistant Professor of Neuroscience

Yingxi Lin, PhD
Fred and Carole Middleton Career Development Assistant Professor of Neuroscience

Joshua McDermott, PhD
Assistant Professor of Cognitive Science

Kay Tye, PhD
Whitehead Career Development Assistant Professor of Neuroscience

Weifeng Xu, PhD
Assistant Professor of Neuroscience

Feng Zhang, PhD
Keck Career Development Assistant Professor of Brain and Cognitive Sciences and Biological Engineering
Core Member, Broad Institute

Adjunct Professor

Shimon Ullman, PhD

Senior Lecturers/Lecturers

Thomas Byrne, PhD
Sonal Jhaveri, PhD
Aida Khan, PhD

Instructors/Technical Instructors

Mandana Sassanfar, PhD
Daniel Zysman

Research Staff

Senior Research Scientist

Rachael Neve, PhD

Principal Research Scientist

Ruth Rosenholtz, PhD

Professors Emeriti

Stephan Lewis Chorover, PhD
Professor of Psychology, Emeritus

Suzanne Corkin, PhD
Professor of Behavioral Neuroscience, Emerita

Alan Hein, PhD
Professor of Experimental Psychology, Emeritus

Richard Held, PhD
Professor of Experimental Psychology, Emeritus

Nelson Yuan-Sheng Kiang, PhD
Eaton-Peabody Professor of Health Sciences and Technology and Brain and Cognitive Sciences, Emeritus

Whitman Albin Richards, PhD
Professor of Cognitive Sciences, Emeritus

Peter Harkai Schiller, PhD
Dorothy W. Poitras Professor of Medical Physiology, Emeritus

Richard Jay Wurtman, MD
Cecil H. Green Distinguished Professor of Neuropharmacology, Emeritus


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