Department of Brain and Cognitive Sciences

The collective quest of the Department of Brain and Cognitive Sciences (BCS) is to understand the brain and the mind and—ultimately—how the brain gives rise to the mind. In the pursuit of this objective, BCS conducts research, educates students, and trains new scientists in a diverse, multidisciplinary environment of interrelated areas and levels of investigation. In the past year, the BCS community has been strengthened by the addition of new faculty, a growth in overall resources, record numbers of students in both graduate and undergraduate courses, and the recognition of its peers. BCS today is a unique department with a unique vision, looking forward to continued scientific leadership and service to the Institute and to society.

Sixteen BCS faculty members (of 29 primary faculty) are also investigators in two neuroscience research centers: the McGovern Institute for Brain Research and the Picower Center for Learning and Memory. Understanding the brain and mind is widely seen as one of the great intellectual challenges of the 21st century. MIT has positioned itself to lead this challenge with a major expansion of its neuroscience effort. This effort, which includes the creation of the two research centers, is enabled by the core strength of BCS: investigating fundamental problems of the brain at multiple levels of analysis, including brain molecules, neurons, networks of neurons, and modules of the mind. Investigators in the McGovern Institute seek to understand specific brain systems, including those for vision and movement, using approaches of brain imaging, systems neuroscience, and molecular neuroscience. Investigators in the Picower Center seek to understand mechanisms of learning, memory, and brain plasticity using molecular and systems approaches. A new building for neuroscience and cognitive science—the brain and cognitive sciences project—is under construction at the intersection of Main and Vassar Streets. When completed in 2005, it will bring together the department and centers in one place in an unprecedented research, teaching, and training enterprise.


The department welcomed 35 new undergraduate majors and 17 graduate students for the 2002–2003 academic year, bringing enrollment in the undergraduate and graduate programs to 123 and 66, respectively. BCS graduated 44 seniors with bachelor's degrees and granted two MS and seven PhD degrees.

BCS undergrads garnered a significant number of honors for their scholarship, research, and contributions to the community. Among the awards were the Karl Taylor Compton Prize, the highest award presented by the Institute to students, the Priscilla King Gray Award for Public Service, and the Barry M. Goldwater Scholarship for Excellence in Science, Mathematics, and Engineering.

Curriculum changes for 2002–2003 included several well-received new subjects as well as significant enhancements to the first-term rotation program for incoming graduate students.

Faculty Highlights

Carlos Lois joined BCS as Edward J. Poitras assistant professor in human biology and experimental medicine and investigator in the Picower Center for Learning and Memory in September 2002.

Christopher Moore joined BCS as assistant professor and investigator in the McGovern Institute for Brain Research in January 2003.

Mark Bear joined BCS as Picower professor of neuroscience in February 2003.

Michael Fee joined BCS as associate professor and investigator in the McGovern Institute for Brain Research in May 2003.

Lera Boroditsky was awarded the Class of 1942 Career Development Professorship and an NSF CAREER Award.

Ann Graybiel received an honorary doctorate from Mount Sinai School of Medicine for her "landmark contributions."

Earl Miller was named editor of the Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience and was elected to the International Society for Behavioral Neuroscience.

Pawan Sinha received the John Merck Scholars Program Award in the Biology of Developmental Disabilities in Children and the Wade Award for Creative Research, and he was noted in the Guinness Book of World Records as the creator of the world's smallest book (the entire New Testament on a tablet measuring 5 x 5 mm).

Mriganka Sur was elected fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and fellow of the Rodin Academy, Sweden.

Richard Wurtman and his lab celebrated the publication of Wurtman's 1,000th peer-reviewed article.

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Research Advances

Brain Mechanisms of Vision and Movement

Research in Emilio Bizzi's laboratory has shown that neurons in all the motor areas of the frontal lobe of the nonhuman primate are selectively recruited during the acquisition of novel motor tasks. The lab has also been studying motor learning in patients with impaired mobility caused by a stroke affecting the motor areas of the central nervous system, and it has demonstrated the efficacy and feasibility of a remotely supervised, computer-enabled physical therapy device administered over high-speed telecommunications for patients recovering from stroke.

Mriganka Sur's laboratory made two important discoveries about the organization and function of the visual cortex. By combining optical imaging and intracellular recording in vivo, the lab showed that neurons at specific locations—pinwheel centers—integrate a wide range of inputs and are thus particularly capable of plasticity in their responses. By recording monkeys performing visual tasks, the lab demonstrated that neurons at the earliest stages of visual cortical processing can convey information about cognitive representations that regulate where we look next.

Christopher Moore's lab is studying how rapid changes in neural organization support rapid changes in perceptual ability. The model system employed is the sense of touch, and methods used include magnetic resonance imaging, optical imaging, and electrophysiological techniques in rodents, monkeys, and humans. The lab recently discovered that rat whiskers (vibrissae)—one of the most important model systems of sensory function—amplify vibrations in a way that parallels mechanisms of hearing.

Pawan Sinha's lab has launched Project Prakash, which is working with a unique population of children in India: those who have been blind for several years but can still be treated. By studying how these children learn to see once their sight is surgically restored, the lab has gained knowledge about how visual processes develop, how the brain encodes objects, and how we can computationally formalize this process. The project is also developing rehabilitation routines to help the children acquire complex visual skills and exploring the applicability of these routines for disorders such as autism.

Edward Adelson, who studies mechanisms of visual perception, was selected as one of ISI's Highly Cited Authors and will be listed on the upcoming web site. The demos of illusions on his own web site were highlighted in Science's Netwatch column.

Learning and Memory

Ann Graybiel's lab has made significant discoveries about how we decide to act and how we learn to do some things so that we can do them almost on autopilot. The laboratory has discovered neural activity patterns and gene-induction patterns that occur when this process of learning—and of acquiring habits—occurs.

Suzanne Corkin's lab has made progress in defining the neural substrate for remote memory, age-associated failures in retrieval from long-term memory, and emotional memory in aging.

Earl Miller's lab has made key discoveries about how and where concepts such as "number," "cat and dog," "same," and "different" are represented in the brain.

Mathew Wilson's lab, in collaboration with Susumu Tonegawa, has demonstrated for the first time the role of circuits within hippocampal area CA3 in mice in the formation of memories of novel events. These findings have important implications for the formation of human memories of personal experience.

Brain Development and Plasticity

Morgan Sheng's lab discovered several novel ways by which neurons eliminate their synapses, thus opening a new area of molecular neuroscience research that has potential applicability for treatment of neurodegenerative disease.

Gerald Schneider's lab confirmed the induction of functional regeneration of the severed optic tract in small animals with the use of peripheral nerve bridges. In addition, the lab used an artificial "self-assembling peptide" material to support wound healing and axonal regeneration in the brain of young animals and for time-release delivery of molecules in the central nervous system. Schneider's lab has also assumed a leadership role in the creation of the "paperless classroom" at MIT.

Mark Bear's lab discovered a key mechanism underlying receptive field plasticity in the visual cortex. One example of receptive field plasticity is the striking loss of visual cortical responsiveness to an eye temporarily deprived of normal vision during a critical period of postnatal life. The lab has now shown that a period of monocular deprivation triggers the same molecular changes in amino-3-hydroxy-5-methyl-4-isoxazole propionic acid receptor function as long-term synaptic depression.

Guosong Liu's lab studies the principles that guide the formation of functional neural circuits. The lab found that excitatory and inhibitory synapses are organized in an ordered fashion on a neuron's dendritic tree to maintain a local balance of excitation and inhibition. Surprisingly, it was learned that this balance of excitation and inhibition is essential for plasticity of synapses.

Elly Nedivi's lab has been working on characterizing cpg15, a gene they isolated in a forward genetic screen for genes that may play a role in synaptic plasticity. The gene encodes a small, highly conserved protein, CPG15. The lab has recently shown that the soluble, secreted form of CPG15 is expressed in regions that are undergoing rapid proliferation and apoptosis in the embryonic brain. CPG15 is the first identified survival factor expressed by undifferentiated neurons, and it may provide a selective force for the protection of specific neuronal subpopulations during morphogenesis of the mammalian forebrain.

Dick Wurtman's lab found that among rats with memory impairments caused by old age or by having been raised in a "deprived" environment, administration of oral citicoline for six weeks fully restores these functions to normal. The lab has also shown that pain associated with inflammation can be ameliorated by giving animals drugs that block the two cellular receptors for the platelet-activating factor on the cell surface or in the cytoplasm.


Work in Ted Gibson's lab has focused on a number of areas within the general theme of discovering how language is comprehended and produced. New projects include the following: investigating how adolescent children understand syntax in sentences; the working memory and sentence complexity; the readability of transcripts of spoken speech; and brain imaging of the syntactic components of language.

Joshua Tenenbaum's group has developed computational models that explain for the first time how people can accurately infer the meanings of words—or the existence of hidden causal relations or properties of natural kinds—from just one or a few examples. They have also developed the Isomap algorithm. Isomap has been applied in human motion analysis, computational linguistics, information retrieval, statistics, astrophysics, protein folding, and gene expression analysis.

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The department celebrated the groundbreaking of the brain and cognitive sciences project in April and looks forward to moving into its new home in 2005.

The Friday Colloquium continues as a much-anticipated end to the week in BCS, providing a rich forum for scientific collaboration and social interaction within the department. The student-organized lunch series—Brain Lunch, Cog Lunch—as well as the Plastic Lunch series organized by the Picower Center for Learning and Memory have expanded and now attract larger audiences.

Mriganka Sur
Department Head

More information about the Department of Brain and Cognitive Sciences can be found on the web at


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