Making the Brain Better

Written by: 
Leslie Minton

Edward Boyden ('95 TAMS) (Photo by Dominick Reuter)When Edward Boyden ('95 TAMS) enrolled in UNT's Texas Academy of Mathematics and Science in 1993, he asked big questions: How can we better understand the human condition? How do we explain the nature of existence? A 14-year-old Boyden began working in a UNT chemistry lab, where he would mix various chemicals to see if he could create from scratch the molecules that make up DNA. Along with his math and science courses, he also studied philosophy and literature.

The skills he developed in those courses, including critical thinking and argument formation, have helped him explore answers to his big questions. His research has earned him a 2016 Breakthrough Prize in Life Sciences, among the top awards scientists can receive.

Today, Boyden is an associate professor of media arts and sciences at MIT, and he also leads the MIT Media Lab's synthetic neurobiology research group. He co-invented optogenetics, now used by thousands of researchers around the world. The tools use light to control brain cells.

"In all sorts of single-celled organisms there are molecules that convert light into electric signals, almost like little solar panels," Boyden says.

"We placed the genes that encode those molecules into neurons, since neurons compute using electricity. This allows us to switch those neurons on or off using light signals."

He says this could one day allow scientists to turn off cells that trigger epileptic seizures or turn on cells that lessen the effects of Alzheimer's disease.

"We can make the brain better," he says.

Boyden has received the BBVA Foundation Frontiers of Knowledge Award, the Society for Neuroscience Young Investigator Award and the Carnegie Prize in Mind and Brain Sciences, among many other honors.