Faces of the Foundation: Ed Boyden

February 26, 2018
Bennett McIntosh
Livermore, Calif

Ed Boyden wants to “solve the brain” – to map its circuitry and activity so completely that our thoughts are no longer fleeting mysteries but knowable physical phenomena. This means mapping a sizeable fraction of the trillions of connections between the hundred billion neurons in our brain – a task he thinks he can finish before he retires.

In fact, he says, “I’d say we’re a bit ahead of schedule.” Since graduate school, Boyden and his collaborators have developed multiple scientific tools that allow neuroscientists to do anything from controlling neurons with light to physically expanding tissue samples to help microscopes view them with unprecedented precision.

Boyden credits his success in changing how science gets done to a habit he calls “backwards thinking” – pursuing science not as the testing of specific hypotheses using existing technology, but instead by understanding what sorts of new technologies are needed to answer very big scientific questions, and then borrowing freely from other fields of science to invent solutions to these technical challenges.

“From a young age I was trying to think how you could approach philosophy through science,” says Boyden – he was particularly interested in the origins of life and the source of consciousness. By age 14, he was working in a chemistry lab at the University of North Texas, probing the origins of life under Professor Paul Braterman. Two years later, he transferred to MIT, where he completed three degrees in physics and in electrical engineering and computer science.

With diverse skills from chemistry and physics to machine learning and electrical engineering under his belt, he felt ready to provide answers for neuroscience – but first resolved to learn how to ask the right questions. He did this during his Hertz Fellowship from 1999-2004, studying the “hardware” that stores memories in our brain. “It’s important to know how to ask big questions, because you see all sorts of examples where engineers or physicists enter biological fields and make tools that don’t solve problems,” he said.

Late in his PhD, with the wisdom of years of neuroscience behind him, Boyden and a postdoc at Stanford, Karl Deisseroth decided to return to an idea for a side project they had discussed as early as 2000, when they were both students – using light-activated proteins called microbial opsins to make neurons in the brain triggerable with light. After years in the field, Boyden saw the advantage of such precise control, and threw himself into the work even though it was tangential to his PhD. The tool Boyden and Deisseroth developed – now called optogenetics – would win both scientists a Breakthrough Prize in Life Sciences in 2015.

But a single breakthrough doesn’t solve the brain. In the decade since joining MIT’s Media Lab, and later the MIT McGovern Institute, Boyden’s group has pumped out breakthrough after breakthrough, each bringing neuroscience’s capabilities closer to Boyden’s vision – and working with other groups who do the same. “Our group specializes in a strategy, a way of thinking,” says Boyden. He now holds 173 patents – and counting – and collaborates with hundreds of labs around the world to deploy and improve his tools.

Boyden thinks when we know the brain completely, when we know precisely the mechanisms of empathy and compassion, we can end human suffering and violence not by coercion, but by empowering people to improve these aspects of themselves, making the very best of their humanity. No field of human study has yet found the key to this ultimate enlightenment – “The economists have failed,” he says, “and the psychologists have failed, to fully unravel the mechanisms of human drive.” Now, it’s the neuroscientists’ turn.