Category Archives: Student research

November 24, 2015

gharbi mobile image processing

Gharbi: streamlining mobile image processing

As smartphones become people’s primary computers and their primary cameras, there is growing demand for mobile versions of image-processing applications. Image processing, however, can be computationally intensive and could quickly drain a cellphone’s battery. Some mobile applications try to solve this problem by sending image files to a central server, which processes the images and sends them back. But with large images, this introduces significant delays and could incur costs for increased data usage.

At the Siggraph Asia conference last week, researchers from MIT, Stanford University, and Adobe Systems presented a system that, in experiments, reduced the bandwidth consumed by server-based image processing by as much as 98.5 percent, and the power consumption by as much as 85 percent. The system sends the server a highly compressed version of an image, and the server sends back an even smaller file, which contains simple instructions for modifying the original image.

Michaël Gharbi, a graduate student in electrical engineering and computer science at MIT and first author on the Siggraph paper, says that the technique could become more useful as image-processing algorithms become more sophisticated.  Read more

November 23, 2015

schlumpberger efficient shockwave-based process desalination water

Schlumpberger: Shockwave-based process for desalination of water

As the availability of clean, potable water becomes an increasingly urgent issue in many parts of the world, researchers are searching for new ways to treat salty, brackish or contaminated water to make it usable. Now a team at MIT has come up with an innovative approach that, unlike most traditional desalination systems, does not separate ions or water molecules with filters, which can become clogged, or boiling, which consumes great amounts of energy.

Instead, the system uses an electrically driven shockwave within a stream of flowing water, which pushes salty water to one side of the flow and fresh water to the other, allowing easy separation of the two streams. The new approach is described in the journal Environmental Science and Technology Letters, in a paper by professor of chemical engineering and mathematics Martin Bazant, graduate student Sven Schlumpberger, undergraduate Nancy Lu, and former postdoc Matthew Suss.  Read more

November 20, 2015


Kamath: Tackling cancer research from multiple perspectives

As an MIT undergraduate, Tushar Kamath regularly rode his bike across the Charles River to Massachusetts General Hospital (MGH) to retrieve blood samples from cancer patients; he then analyzed these samples on campus, at the Koch Institute for Integrative Cancer Research. Kamath, who received his BS in biological engineering in June and is now an MIT master’s student in biological engineering, says his trips back and forth across the river reflect his interdisciplinary view of research.

The blood that Kamath pedaled back from MGH helped in an exciting discovery about circulating tumor cells, which move through the blood in very low numbers, making them difficult to capture: He determined that a method of capturing these cells, developed in the lab where he was working, was as good as the method approved by the Food and Drug Administration. The experience showed Kamath that you don’t need a PhD to make a significant discovery.

Kamath is working with William Thilly, a professor of biological engineering at MIT, and research scientist Elena Gostjeva in the new field of metakaryotic biology. Gostjeva discovered the metakaryotic stem cells, which create organs during fetal and juvenile growth, but later serve as the generative stem cells for pathologic lesions including tumors and atherosclerotic plaques. These cells also have peculiarities including X-ray resistance, not using mitosis to divide, and organizing their genomes in a set of circular structures instead of in linear chromosomes. Read more at MIT News.

November 19, 2015

Julian Jara-Ettinger what counts as fair

Jara-Ettinger: Children’s ability to count is key to distributing resources

There are many ways to divvy up a pile of cookies. Among the possibilities: Everyone can get an equal number, or those who contributed more to the cookie baking can get a larger share. In studies, young children usually default to splitting up resources equally. However, as children get older, they shift toward a merit-based approach, in which people who work harder on a task are rewarded with a bigger portion.

New research from neuroscientists at MIT and the University of Rochester suggests that this shift is heavily influenced by children’s ability to count. In a study of children from the Tsimane’ tribe in the Amazon, who learn to count at widely varying ages, they found that counting ability was the biggest predictor of how children would divide resources. “It’s a very strong effect,” says Julian Jara-Ettinger, an MIT graduate student and lead author of the study, which appears in Developmental Science. The paper’s senior author is Steve Piantadosi, a former MIT graduate student who is now an assistant professor at Rochester.  Read more

November 18, 2015

yuk hydrogel superglue

Yuk: Hydrogel superglue is tougher than natural adhesives

Nature has developed innovative ways to solve a sticky challenge: Mussels and barnacles stubbornly glue themselves to cliff faces, ship hulls, and even the skin of whales. Likewise, tendons and cartilage stick to bone with incredible robustness, giving animals flexibility and agility. The natural adhesive in all these cases is hydrogel — a sticky mix of water and gummy material that creates a tough and durable bond.

Now engineers at MIT have developed a method to make synthetic, sticky hydrogel that is more than 90 percent water. The hydrogel, which is a transparent, rubber-like material, can adhere to surfaces such as glass, silicon, ceramics, aluminum, and titanium with a toughness comparable to the bond between tendon and cartilage on bone.

In experiments to demonstrate its robustness, the researchers applied a small square of their hydrogel between two plates of glass, from which they then suspended a 55-pound weight. They also glued the hydrogel to a silicon wafer, which they then smashed with a hammer. While the silicon shattered, its pieces remained stuck in place.

Such durability makes the hydrogel an ideal candidate for protective coatings on underwater surfaces such as boats and submarines. As the hydrogel is biocompatible, it may also be suitable for a range of health-related applications, such as biomedical coatings for catheters and sensors implanted in the body.

“You can imagine new applications with this very robust, adhesive, yet soft material,” says Xuanhe Zhao, the Robert N. Noyce Career Development Associate Professor in MIT’s Department of Mechanical Engineering. For example, Zhao’s group is currently exploring uses for the hydrogel in soft robotics, where the material may serve as synthetic tendon and cartilage, or in flexible joints.

“It’s a pretty tough and adhesive gel that’s mostly water,” Hyunwoo Yuk, a graduate student in mechanical engineering and the lead author of a paper on the work, says. “Basically, it’s tough, bonding water.”  Read more

November 17, 2015

mit csail bylinskii eye research visualizations

Bylinskii: Eye-tracking research makes better visualizations

Spend 10 minutes on social media, and you’ll learn that people love infographics. But why, exactly, do we gravitate towards articles with titles like “24 Diagrams to Help You Eat Healthier” and “All You Need To Know About Beer In One Chart”? Do they actually serve their purpose of not only being memorable, but actually helping us comprehend and retain information?Researchers from MIT’s Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory (CSAIL) and Harvard University are on the case.

In a new study that analyzes people’s eye-movements and text responses as they look at charts, graphs, and infographics, researchers have been able to determine which aspects of visualizations make them memorable, understandable, and informative — and reveal how to make sure your own graphics really pop.

Presenting a paper last week at the proceedings for the IEEE Information Visualization Conference (InfoViz) in Chicago, the team members say that their findings can provide better design principles for communications in industries such as marketing, business, and education, as well as teach us more about how human memory, attention, and comprehension work.

“By integrating multiple methods, including eye-tracking, text recall, and memory tests, we were able to develop what is, to our knowledge, the largest and most comprehensive user study to date on visualizations,” says CSAIL PhD student Zoya Bylinskii, first-author on the paper alongside Michelle Borkin, a former doctoral student at Harvard’s John A. Paulson School of Engineering and Applied Sciences (SEAS) who is now an assistant professor at Northeastern University. Read more

November 16, 2015

magnetic cell sensors design

Chen & Matsumoto: designing magnetic cell sensors

MIT engineers have designed magnetic protein nanoparticles that can be used to track cells or to monitor interactions within cells. The particles, described today in Nature Communications, are an enhanced version of a naturally occurring, weakly magnetic protein called ferritin. “Ferritin, which is as close as biology has given us to a naturally magnetic protein nanoparticle, is really not that magnetic. That’s what this paper is addressing,” says Alan Jasanoff, an MIT professor of biological engineering and the paper’s senior author. “We used the tools of protein engineering to try to boost the magnetic characteristics of this protein.”

The new “hypermagnetic” protein nanoparticles can be produced within cells, allowing the cells to be imaged or sorted using magnetic techniques. This eliminates the need to tag cells with synthetic particles and allows the particles to sense other molecules inside cells. The paper’s lead author is former MIT graduate student Yuri Matsumoto. Other authors are graduate student Ritchie Chen and Polina Anikeeva, an assistant professor of materials science and engineering.  Read more

November 12, 2015


Kamath: Tackling cancer research from multiple perspectives

As an MIT undergraduate, Tushar Kamath regularly rode his bike across the Charles River to Massachusetts General Hospital (MGH) to retrieve blood samples from cancer patients; he then analyzed these samples on campus, at the Koch Institute for Integrative Cancer Research. Kamath, who received his BS in biological engineering in June and is now an MIT master’s student in biological engineering, says his trips back and forth across the river reflect his interdisciplinary view of research.

“You’ve got the top physicians sitting across the river, and you’ve got the top scientists sitting on this side of the river,” Kamath says. “Everybody is so close together, the potential for collaboration is huge.” The blood that Kamath pedaled back from MGH helped in an exciting discovery about circulating tumor cells, which move through the blood in very low numbers, making them difficult to capture: He determined that a method of capturing these cells, developed in the lab where he was working, was as good as the method approved by the Food and Drug Administration. The experience showed Kamath that you don’t need a PhD to make a significant discovery.  Read more

November 11, 2015

DeGennaro hst locate objects memory

DeGennaro: Brain relies on memory to locate objects

Imagine you are looking for your wallet on a cluttered desk. As you scan the area, you hold in your mind a mental picture of what your wallet looks like. MIT neuroscientists have now identified a brain region that stores this type of visual representation during a search. The researchers also found that this region sends signals to the parts of the brain that control eye movements, telling individuals where to look next.

This region, known as the ventral pre-arcuate (VPA), is critical for what the researchers call “feature attention,” which allows the brain to seek objects based on their specific properties. Most previous studies of how the brain pays attention have investigated a different type of attention known as spatial attention — that is, what happens when the brain focuses on a certain location.

“The way that people go about their lives most of the time, they don’t know where things are in advance. They’re paying attention to things based on their features,” says Robert Desimone, director of MIT’s McGovern Institute for Brain Research. “In the morning you’re trying to find your car keys so you can go to work. How do you do that? You don’t look at every pixel in your house. You have to use your knowledge of what your car keys look like.”

Desimone, also the Doris and Don Berkey Professor in MIT’s Department of Brain and Cognitive Sciences, is the senior author of a paper describing the findings in the Oct. 29 online edition of Neuron. The paper’s lead author is Narcisse Bichot, a research scientist at the McGovern Institute. Other authors are Matthew Heard, a former research technician, and Ellen DeGennaro, a graduate student in the Harvard-MIT Division of Health Sciences and Technology.  Read more

November 6, 2015

abe weintraub dna

Weintraub: Mapping the 3-D structure of DNA

For graduate student Abe Weintraub, the magic and intrigue of DNA is all in the packaging. Imagine trying to fit 24 miles of string into a tennis ball, the PhD student in biology says: That is, in essence, what it’s like inside every cell nucleus in the human body, each of which contains about 2 meters’ worth of DNA strands. But, as Weintraub is finding, this packaging sometimes goes awry, which may be the basis for disease.

Although the genetic code that resides in DNA has traditionally been thought of as linear, Weintraub is contributing to a body of knowledge about its 3-D organization. Two genes that may exist far apart when a strand is stretched out straight could actually be right next to each other when the strand is folded inside a cell nucleus — and the same applies to regulatory elements, which tell genes to turn on or off.

Looking at DNA as a 3-D phenomenon may yield insights about how certain genes get turned on or off, and thus how cells differentiate — in other words, DNA’s 3-D structure might actually be what’s behind one cell becoming a skin cell, while another becomes a lung cell. Weintraub has now been part of the lab of Richard Young, a professor of biology, for one and a half years; his research began in figuring out how DNA gets folded up the way it does, and has more recently shifted to the consequences of improper folding.  Read more

November 4, 2015

Adib virtual x-ray

Adib: Wireless “X-ray vision” could power virtual reality, smart homes, & Hollywood

A team of researchers at MIT’s Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Lab (CSAIL) has long believed that wireless signals like WiFi can be used to see things that are invisible to the naked eye. Since 2013, CSAIL researchers have been developing technologies that use wireless signals to track human motion. The team has shown that it can detect gestures and body movementsas subtle as the rise and fall of a person’s chest from the other side of a house, allowing a mother to monitor a baby’s breathing or a firefighter to determine if there are survivors inside a burning building.

Next up? Seeing a person’s silhouette and even distinguishing between individuals. In a paper accepted to the SIGGRAPH Asia conference taking place next month, the team presents a new technology called RF Capture that picks up wireless reflections off the human body to see the silhouette of a human standing behind a wall. By tracking the silhouette, the device can trace a person’s hand as he writes in the air and even distinguish between 15 different people through a wall with nearly 90 percent accuracy. In other words, from the opposite side of a building, RF Capture can determine where you are, who you are, and even which hand you are moving.

Researchers say the technology could have major implications for everything from gaming and filmmaking to emergency response and eldercare. Take, for example, motion capture in movie production: “Today actors have to wear markers on their bodies and move in a specific room full of cameras,” says PhD student Fadel Adib, who is lead author on the new paper. “RF Capture would enable motion capture without body sensors and could track actors’ movements even if they are behind furniture or walls.”  Read more

October 30, 2015

cho control bubbles electric charge

Cho: controlling the bubbles of boiling water using a small electric charge

Boiling water, with its commotion of bubbles that rise from a surface as water comes to a boil, is central to most electric power plants, heating and cooling systems, and desalination plants. Now, for the first time, researchers at MIT have found a way to control this process, literally with the flick of an electrical switch.

The system, which could improve the efficiency of electric power generation and other processes, is described in a paper by Department of Mechanical Engineering Professor Evelyn Wang, graduate student Jeremy Cho, and recent graduate Jordan Mizerak ’14, published in the journal Nature Communications.

This degree of control over the boiling process, independent of temperature, Wang says, has not previously been demonstrated despite the ubiquity of boiling in industrial processes. Other systems have been developed to control boiling using electric fields, but these have required special fluids rather than water, and a thousandfold higher voltages, making them economically impractical for most uses.  Read more

October 29, 2015

mit grad students faster optimization algorithm

Lee, Sidford, Wong: A faster optimization algorithm

Optimization problems are everywhere in engineering: Balancing design tradeoffs is an optimization problem, as are scheduling and logistical planning. The theory — and sometimes the implementation — of control systems relies heavily on optimization, and so does machine learning, which has been the basis of most recent advances in artificial intelligence.

This week, at the IEEE Symposium on Foundations of Computer Science, a trio of present and past MIT graduate students won a best-student-paper award for a new “cutting-plane” algorithm, a general-purpose algorithm for solving optimization problems. The algorithm improves on the running time of its most efficient predecessor, and the researchers offer some reason to think that they may have reached the theoretical limit.

But they also present a new method for applying their general algorithm to specific problems, which yields huge efficiency gains — several orders of magnitude.

“What we are trying to do is revive people’s interest in the general problem the algorithm solves,” says Yin-Tat Lee, an MIT graduate student in mathematics and one of the paper’s co-authors. “Previously, people needed to devise different algorithms for each problem, and then they needed to optimize them for a long time. Now we are saying, if for many problems, you have one algorithm, then, in practice, we can try to optimize over one algorithm instead of many algorithms, and we may have a better chance to get faster algorithms for many problems.”

Lee is joined on the paper by Aaron Sidford, who was an MIT graduate student in electrical engineering and computer science when the work was done but is now at Microsoft Research New England, and by Sam Wong, who earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees in math and electrical engineering and computer science at MIT before moving to the University of California at Berkeley for his PhD.  Read more

October 28, 2015


Rigol: Making banking more effective for the poor

Graduate student Natalia Rigol has followed an unusual path to MIT: Her childhood in Cuba was tainted by poverty, and then her entire family received hard-to-come-by visas, enabling her to live out her elementary and middle school years in Russia and the Czech Republic — but with little understanding of the local languages.

When she was 13, Rigol’s family settled in the United States, where she finally had access to a middle-class life and a more stable education. Now, she is finishing up her PhD in economics, focusing on the use of finance to help poor individuals break the cycle of poverty.

“I often feel that I’m the product of extraordinary circumstances,” Rigol says. “But you shouldn’t have to be extremely fortunate, like I have been, just to live a decent life.”

Through field research in India, Rigol is hoping to devise alternative ways to deliver financing to poverty-stricken communities. For someone who’s still relatively young, she’s been at it for a while: Her work in this discipline—which she classifies primarily as “development work,”  and secondarily as economics—has been ongoing since 2007, when she was an undergraduate at Harvard University. Read more.

October 27, 2015

aditi verma nuclear policy

Verma: A multidisciplinary take on nuclear policy

Aditi Verma’s first encounter with nuclear policy was nearly her last. She represented Germany at a high school version of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), and was frustrated by the debate on her group’s topic, nuclear waste. “We had to pass resolutions, but without a science and engineering background, people couldn’t really negotiate,” she recalls.

Today, Verma wonders if this experience paradoxically sparked her interest in the field. A doctoral student in nuclear science and engineering, Verma has spent her academic career acquiring the expertise in science, engineering, and the social sciences required to make sense of complex policy questions that arise around nuclear energy. Her studies have included an internship at the actual IAEA.

Verma’s dissertation, entitled “Towards an International Nuclear Safety Framework,” highlights her distinctive, interdisciplinary approach. She draws on sociology and political science theory and practice, as well as quantitative analysis, to solve what she calls an “empirical puzzle”: how the U.S., French, and Russian nuclear programs developed different safety practices despite starting with similar technologies — and in the case of France, a reactor design identical to and originating from the U.S. (a type of pressurized water reactor).  Read more

October 26, 2015

Schoellhammer ultrasound drug delivery

Schoellhammer: Using ultrasound to improve drug delivery

Using ultrasound waves, researchers from MIT and Massachusetts General Hospital (MGH) have found a way to enable ultra-rapid delivery of drugs to the gastrointestinal (GI) tract. This approach could make it easier to deliver drugs to patients suffering from GI disorders such as inflammatory bowel disease, ulcerative colitis, and Crohn’s disease, the researchers say.

Currently, such diseases are usually treated with drugs administered as an enema, which must be maintained in the colon for hours while the drug is absorbed. However, this can be difficult for patients who are suffering from diarrhea and incontinence. To overcome that, the researchers sought a way to stimulate more rapid drug absorption.

“We’re not changing how you administer the drug. What we are changing is the amount of time that the formulation needs to be there, because we’re accelerating how the drug enters the tissue,” says Giovanni Traverso, a research affiliate at MIT’s Koch Institute for Integrative Cancer Research, a gastroenterologist at MGH, and one of the senior authors of a paper describing the technique in the Oct. 21 issue of Science Translational Medicine.

“With additional research, our technology could prove invaluable in both clinical and research settings, enabling improved therapies and expansion of research techniques applied to the GI tract. It demonstrates for the first time the active administration of drugs, including biologics, through the GI tract,” says Daniel Blankschtein, the Hermann P. Meissner Professor in Chemical Engineering, who is also a senior author of the paper.

Robert Langer, the David H. Koch Institute Professor at MIT and a member of the Koch Institute, is also a senior author of the paper. The study’s lead author is Carl Schoellhammer, a graduate student in chemical engineering.  Read more

October 23, 2015

automate big data analysis kanter

Kanter: Automating big-data analysis

Big-data analysis consists of searching for buried patterns that have some kind of predictive power. But choosing which “features” of the data to analyze usually requires some human intuition. In a database containing, say, the beginning and end dates of various sales promotions and weekly profits, the crucial data may not be the dates themselves but the spans between them, or not the total profits but the averages across those spans.

MIT researchers aim to take the human element out of big-data analysis, with a new system that not only searches for patterns but designs the feature set, too. To test the first prototype of their system, they enrolled it in three data science competitions, in which it competed against human teams to find predictive patterns in unfamiliar data sets. Of the 906 teams participating in the three competitions, the researchers’ “Data Science Machine” finished ahead of 615.

In two of the three competitions, the predictions made by the Data Science Machine were 94 percent and 96 percent as accurate as the winning submissions. In the third, the figure was a more modest 87 percent. But where the teams of humans typically labored over their prediction algorithms for months, the Data Science Machine took somewhere between two and 12 hours to produce each of its entries.

“We view the Data Science Machine as a natural complement to human intelligence,” says Max Kanter, whose MIT master’s thesis in computer science is the basis of the Data Science Machine. “There’s so much data out there to be analyzed. And right now it’s just sitting there not doing anything. So maybe we can come up with a solution that will at least get us started on it, at least get us moving.”  Read more

October 21, 2015

App to manage food waste by Sloan MBAs

Malina and Ashenfelter: App to manage food waste by Sloan MBAs

Spoiler Alert, founded by Emily Malina and Ricky Ashenfelter, while working toward their Sloan MBA’s last year, has launched an app to address food waste issues. The app helps organizations and companies manage their surplus food and organic waste by connecting them with organizations that can use them.

With the Spoiler Alert app, the store with the surplus vegetables can post what is available, and nearby food rescue organizations can respond and pick up the food in time to provide the still-fresh items to people who could use them.

“It is designed to seamlessly connect all aspects of the food supply chain,” Ashenfelter says. The app is available through iTunes, and businesses can sign up on the company’s website. Malina and Ashenfelter’s work made headlines this summer in The Boston Globe, Fortune,The Economist, and Tech Crunch. to name a few. The team is currently working on a Web platform as well and is building a version that will be compatible with Android devices. Read more.

October 20, 2015

dalca alzheimers brain

Dalca: Predicting change in the Alzheimer’s brain

MIT researchers are developing a computer system that uses genetic, demographic, and clinical data to help predict the effects of disease on brain anatomy.

In experiments, they trained a machine-learning system on MRI data from patients with neurodegenerative diseases and found that supplementing that training with other patient information improved the system’s predictions. In the cases of patients with drastic changes in brain anatomy, the additional data cut the predictions’ error rate in half, from 20 percent to 10 percent.

“This is the first paper that we’ve ever written on this,” says Polina Golland, a professor of electrical engineering and computer science at MIT and the senior author on the new paper. “Our goal is not to prove that our model is the best model to do this kind of thing; it’s to prove that the information is actually in the data. So what we’ve done is, we take our model, and we turn off the genetic information and the demographic and clinical information, and we see that with combined information, we can predict anatomical changes better.”

First author on the paper is Adrian Dalca, an MIT graduate student in electrical engineering and computer science and a member of Golland’s group at MIT’s Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory. They’re joined by Ramesh Sridharan, another PhD student in Golland’s group, and by Mert Sabuncu, an assistant professor of radiology at Massachusetts General Hospital, who was a postdoc in Golland’s group.  Read more

October 19, 2015

mit canadians research symposium

MIT Canadian Research Symposium , Oct. 20

The Canadian Club is hosting a research symposium on October 20, 6 pm to bring together Canadians and all friends of Canada! Everyone is welcome!  The event will begin with a keynote talk by Dr. George Kenney (3-333), board member of the Canadian Entrepreneurs of New England.  Following the talk, students will showcase their work during a poster session mixer (5-234)! Refreshments will be served.  Poster presenters will be invited early to enjoy dinner before the keynote!  Please RSVP to attend and let us know if you are bringing a poster here.  Contact:  Photo by Steve Richardson

October 19, 2015

david hill computational models

Hill: Enhancing movement with computational models

It’s not every day that graduate students get to test out their research on their advisors. But MIT’s David Hill, a PhD student in media arts and sciences, builds computational models of human locomotion, which are the basis for designing ever-better prosthetics—and his advisor, Hugh Herr, an associate professor of media arts and sciences, is a double amputee.

Hill says living in the world of theoretical models can be somewhat insular, so having a real-life example of someone who can benefit from—and pilot—some of the work he does is part of what helps him stay focused. “I don’t ever want to do research that doesn’t benefit someone else’s life directly,” Hill says.  Read more

October 16, 2015

voigts How the brain controls sleep

Voigts: How the brain controls sleep

MIT neuroscientists have discovered a brain circuit that can trigger small regions of the brain to fall asleep or become less alert, while the rest of the brain remains awake. The circuit originates in a brain structure known as the thalamic reticular nucleus (TRN), which relays signals to the thalamus and then the brain’s cortex, inducing pockets of the slow, oscillating brain waves characteristic of deep sleep. Slow oscillations also occur during coma and general anesthesia, and are associated with decreased arousal. With enough TRN activity, these waves can take over the entire brain.

The researchers believe the TRN may help the brain consolidate new memories by coordinating slow waves between different parts of the brain, allowing them to share information more easily. “During sleep, maybe specific brain regions have slow waves at the same time because they need to exchange information with each other, whereas other ones don’t,” says Laura Lewis, a research affiliate in MIT’s Department of Brain and Cognitive Sciences and one of the lead authors of the new study, appearing in the journal eLife.

The TRN may also be responsible for what happens in the brain when sleep-deprived people experience brief sensations of “zoning out” while struggling to stay awake, the researchers say.

The paper’s other first author is Jakob Voigts, an MIT graduate student in brain and cognitive sciences. Senior authors are Emery Brown, the Edward Hood Taplin Professor of Medical Engineering and Computational Neuroscience at MIT and an anesthesiologist at Massachusetts General Hospital, and Michael Halassa, an assistant professor at New York University. Other authors are MIT research affiliate Francisco Flores and Matthew Wilson, the Sherman Fairchild Professor in Neurobiology and a member of MIT’s Picower Institute for Learning and Memory.  Read more

October 15, 2015

hong brain identify objects

Hong: How the brain identifies objects

When the eyes are open, visual information flows from the retina through the optic nerve and into the brain, which assembles this raw information into objects and scenes.

Scientists have previously hypothesized that objects are distinguished in the inferior temporal (IT) cortex, which is near the end of this flow of information, also called the ventral stream. Anew study from MIT neuroscientists offers evidence that this is indeed the case.

Using data from both humans and nonhuman primates, the researchers found that neuron firing patterns in the IT cortex correlate strongly with success in object-recognition tasks.

“While we knew from prior work that neuronal population activity in inferior temporal cortex was likely to underlie visual object recognition, we did not have a predictive map that could accurately link that neural activity to object perception and behavior. The results from this study demonstrate that a particular map from particular aspects of IT population activity to behavior is highly accurate over all types of objects that were tested,” says James DiCarlo, head of MIT’s Department of Brain and Cognitive Sciences, a member of the McGovern Institute for Brain Research, and senior author of the study, which appears in the Journal of Neuroscience.

The paper’s lead author is Najib Majaj, a former postdoc in DiCarlo’s lab who is now at New York University. Other authors are former MIT graduate student Ha Hong and former MIT undergraduate Ethan Solomon.  Read more

October 14, 2015

soft robotic hand CSAIL

Grad students help give robots rubber grip and object-ID algorithm

Robots have many strong suits, but delicacy traditionally hasn’t been one of them. Rigid limbs and digits make it difficult for them to grasp, hold, and manipulate a range of everyday objects without dropping or crushing them.

Recently, researchers from MIT’s Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory (CSAIL) have discovered that the solution may be to turn to a substance more commonly associated with new buildings and Silly Putty: silicone.

At a conference this month, researchers from CSAIL Director Daniela Rus’ Distributed Robotics Lab demonstrated a 3-D-printed robotic hand made out of silicone rubber that can lift and handle objects as delicate as an egg and as thin as a compact disc.

Just as impressively, its three fingers have special sensors that can estimate the size and shape of an object accurately enough to identify it from a set of multiple items.

“Robots are often limited in what they can do because of how hard it is to interact with objects of different sizes and materials,” Rus says. “Grasping is an important step in being able to do useful tasks; with this work we set out to develop both the soft hands and the supporting control and planning systems that make dynamic grasping possible.”

The paper, which was co-written by Rus and graduate student Bianca Homberg, PhD candidate Robert Katzschmann, and postdoc Mehmet Dogar, will be presented at this month’s International Conference on Intelligent Robots and Systems.  Read more

October 13, 2015

mit grad students natural light switch proteins

Grad students meet the protein behind a light-sensing mechanism

MIT scientists, working with colleagues in Spain, have discovered and mapped a light-sensing protein that uses vitamin B12 to perform key functions, including gene regulation.

The result, derived from studying proteins from the bacterium Thermus thermophilus, involves at least two findings of broad interest. First, it expands our knowledge of the biological role of vitamin B12, which was already understood to help convert fat into energy, and to be involved in brain formation, but has now been identified as a key part of photoreceptor proteins — the structures that allow organisms to sense and respond to light.

Second, the research describes a new mode of gene regulation, in which the light-sensing proteins play a key role. In so doing, the scientists observe, the bacteria have repurposed existing protein structures that use vitamin B12, and put them to work in new ways.

“Nature borrowed not just the vitamin, but really the whole enzyme unit, and modified it … and made it a light sensor,” says Catherine Drennan, a professor of chemistry and biology at MIT.

The findings are detailed this week in the journal Nature. The paper describes the photoreceptors in three different states: in the dark, bound to DNA, and after being exposed to light.

“It’s wonderful that we’ve been able to get all the series of structures, to understand how it works at each stage,” Drennan says.

The paper has nine co-authors, including Drennan; graduate students Percival Yang-Ting Chen, Marco Jost, and Gyunghoon Kang of MIT; Jesus Fernandez-Zapata and S. Padmanabhan of the Institute of Physical Chemistry Rocasolano, in Madrid; and Monserrat Elias-Arnanz, Juan Manuel Ortiz-Guerreo, and Maria Carmen Polanco, of the University of Murcia, in Murcia, Spain.  Read more

October 9, 2015

lemelson mit student prize logo

Lemelson-MIT student prize, deadline Oct. 13

The Lemelson-MIT Program is searching for the most inventive students to apply for the Lemelson-MIT Student Prize.  Winning Grad students will receive $15K in each category: healthcare, food and agriculture, transportation, and consumer devices.  In order to qualify, applicants must be the lead/primary inventor of at least two inventions with tested prototypes.  In addition, eligible graduate students must be full-time, degree-seeking students as of Spring 2016.  Applications are open now through October 13, 2015. Contact:

October 7, 2015

madmec solar cells

Al-Obeidi: “Glasswings” coating for solar cells wins MADMEC

Biomimicry—known as “innovation inspired by nature”—has led to the invention of bullet trains, vaccines, adhesives, and light bulbs, among other things. Now, add to that list the winning invention of last night’s MADMEC competition: Influenced by the anti-reflective wings of the glasswing butterfly, an MIT team created a low-cost coating for solar cells that mitigates reflection, allowing the cells to absorb nearly all light to boost efficiency.

For that invention, the two-student team, aptly named Glasswings, took home the grand prize of $10,000 from the ninth annual MADMEC contest, organized each year by MIT’s Department of Materials Science and Engineering (DMSE) and sponsored this year by Saint Gobain, BP, and Dow Chemical.

With the prize money, Glasswings plans to continue research and development and, potentially, launch a company to commercialize the invention, team member Ahmed Al-Obeidi, a graduate student in DMSE, told MIT News after the competition.  Read more

October 5, 2015

Machine Learning

Zhang and Frogner: More-flexible machine learning

At the Annual Conference on Neural Information Processing Systems in December, MIT researchers will present a new way of doing machine learning that enables semantically related concepts to reinforce each other. So, for instance, an object-recognition algorithm would learn to weigh the co-occurrence of the classifications “dog” and “Chihuahua” more heavily than it would the co-occurrence of “dog” and “cat.” In experiments, the researchers found that a machine-learning algorithm that used their training strategy did a better job of predicting the tags that human users applied to images on the Flickr website than it did when it used a conventional training strategy.

“When you have a lot of possible categories, the conventional way of dealing with it is that, when you want to learn a model for each one of those categories, you use only data associated with that category,” says Chiyuan Zhang, an MIT graduate student in electrical engineering and computer science and one of the new paper’s lead authors. “It’s treating all other categories equally unfavorably. Because there are actually semantic similarities between those categories, we develop a way of making use of that semantic similarity to sort of borrow data from close categories to train the model.” Zhang is joined on the paper by his thesis advisor, Tomaso Poggio, the Eugene McDermott Professor in the Brain Sciences and Human Behavior, and by his fellow first author Charlie Frogner, also a graduate student in Poggio’s group. Hossein Mobahi, a postdoc in the Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory, and Mauricio Araya-Polo, a researcher with Shell Oil, round out the paper’s co-authors.

October 2, 2015

sun brain encoding memories

Sun: How the brain encodes time and place

When you remember a particular experience, that memory has three critical elements — what, when, and where. MIT neuroscientists have now identified a brain circuit that processes the “when” and “where” components of memory.

This circuit, which connects the hippocampus and a region of the cortex known as entorhinal cortex, separates location and timing into two streams of information. The researchers also identified two populations of neurons in the entorhinal cortex that convey this information, dubbed “ocean cells” and “island cells.”

Previous models of memory had suggested that the hippocampus, a brain structure critical for memory formation, separates timing and context information. However, the new study shows that this information is split even before it reaches the hippocampus.

“It suggests that there is a dichotomy of function upstream of the hippocampus,” says Chen Sun, an MIT graduate student in brain and cognitive sciences and one of the lead authors of the paper, which appears in the Sept. 23 issue of Neuron. “There is one pathway that feeds temporal information into the hippocampus, and another that feeds contextual representations to the hippocampus.”  Read more

October 1, 2015

learning languages by playing games

Narasimhan: Learning language by playing games

MIT researchers have designed a computer system that learns how to play a text-based computer game with no prior assumptions about how language works. Although the system can’t complete the game as a whole, its ability to complete sections of it suggests that, in some sense, it discovers the meanings of words during its training.

In 2011, professor of computer science and engineering Regina Barzilay and her students reported a system that learned to play a computer game called “Civilization” by analyzing the game manual. But in the new work, on which Barzilay is again a co-author, the machine-learning system has no direct access to the underlying “state” of the game program—the data the program is tracking and how it’s being modified.

“When you play these games, every interaction is through text,” says Karthik Narasimhan, an MIT graduate student in computer science and engineering and one of the new paper’s two first authors. “For instance, you get the state of the game through text, and whatever you enter is also a command. It’s not like a console with buttons. So you really need to understand the text to play these games, and you also have more variability in the types of actions you can take.”

Narasimhan is joined on the paper by Barzilay, who’s his thesis advisor, and by fellow first author Tejas Kulkarni, a graduate student in the group of Josh Tenenbaum, a professor in the Department of Brain and Cognitive Sciences. They presented the paper last week at the Empirical Methods in Natural Language Processing conference.  Read more

September 30, 2015


Research paper submissions for IAAC due Nov. 30

The 6th IEEE International Advance Computing Conference (IACC- 2016) is accepting research papers for their conference on February 27–28. The deadline to submit is November 30, and the conference listing at IEEE can be viewed here.

Prospective authors are invited to submit full and original research papers in the areas of: High Performance Computing, Advances in Communication and Networks, Advanced Algorithms, Image and Multimedia Processing, Databases and Data Management, and Teaching and Learning Systems. For a detailed list of topics please visit the conference websitePhoto by Ivan Walsh

September 29, 2015

doe scholars program

DOE Scholars Program application, deadline Dec. 15

The Department of Energy (DOE) Scholars Program is now accepting applications for Summer 2016. The deadline is December 15, 2015.

The DOE Scholars Program offers unique opportunities that introduce students or post-graduates to the agency’s mission and operations. Participants in the DOE Scholars Program gain a competitive edge as they apply their education, talent and skills in a variety of scientific research settings within the DOE complex. Appointments are available in a variety of disciplines at participating DOE facilities nationwide.
Being selected as a DOE Scholar offers the following benefits:

* Career possibilities with the nation’s leading sponsor for scientific research
* Opportunities to learn from top scientists and subject matter experts
* Stipends are a minimum of $600 per week (depending on academic status)
* Travel arrangements to and from appointment site

Applicants must be US Citizens and undergraduates, graduates or post-graduates of an accredited college or university. The program is open to majors in: Engineering; Physical Sciences; Environmental Sciences; Computer Science and Information Technology; Physics; Business; Policy; Program Management; Mathematics; Statistics; Safety and Health; Accounting and Finance; Law; Communications; and other related areas.

Visit the website for more information or to apply. Contact:  Photo by: DonkeyHotey

September 29, 2015

inoue rna imaging super resolution

Inoue: Extending super-resolution techniques in RNA imaging

Overcoming limitations of super-resolution microscopy to optimize imaging of RNA in living cells is a key motivation for physics graduate student Takuma Inoue, who works in the lab of MIT assistant professor of physics Ibrahim Cissé.

Inoue, 26, was the first student to join Cissé’s lab at MIT in January 2014, and he built the lab’s super-resolution microscopy setup to study enzyme clusters that enable gene copying and protein production within living cells. Inoue, who this September enters his fourth year toward his PhD, originally started his experimental work in an atomic physics lab, where he worked on an imaging setup to trap extremely cold atoms in a vacuum. He is studying biophysics, atomic physics, and condensed matter physics.

After learning that Cissé needed someone to set up his super-resolution microscopy, Inoue switched to Cissé’s lab. Because he did not have a biology background, Inoue says, “I wasn’t very much familiar with that, but the tools that you use and the methods for imaging are very common with what I had previously done. By building the setup, I got used to what things we can do in the lab. Then I made the transition to actually targeting some biomolecules within the cell to image and for me that was RNA.”  Read more


September 28, 2015

pace 3d heart models surgery

Pace: 3D-printed heart models for surgical planning

Researchers at MIT and Boston Children’s Hospital have developed a system that can take MRI scans of a patient’s heart and, in a matter of hours, convert them into a tangible, physical model that surgeons can use to plan surgery. The models could provide a more intuitive way for surgeons to assess and prepare for the anatomical idiosyncrasies of individual patients. This fall, seven cardiac surgeons at Boston Children’s Hospital will participate in a study intended to evaluate the models’ usefulness.

Golland and her colleagues will describe their new system at the International Conference on Medical Image Computing and Computer Assisted Intervention in October. Danielle Pace, an MIT graduate student in electrical engineering and computer science, is first author on the paper and spearheaded the development of the software that analyzes the MRI scans.

Mehdi Moghari, a physicist at Boston Children’s Hospital, developed new procedures that increase the precision of MRI scans tenfold, and Andrew Powell, a cardiologist at the hospital, leads the project’s clinical work. Read more

September 21, 2015

Science Research

Howard Hughes Medical Institute’s (HHMI) International Fellowship Program application due Oct. 8

The Office of the Dean for Graduate Education (ODGE) is accepting applications for the Howard Hughes Medical Institute’s (HHMI) International Student Research Fellowship Program. Students interested should send preliminary application materials directly to the ODGE by 5 pm on Thursday, October 8. MIT is able to submit 7 nominations to HHMI.

HHMI will award three-year fellowships to international predoctoral students studying in the United States who are ineligible for fellowships and training grants through U.S. federal agencies to support years three, four, and five of a Ph.D. program.

Eligible fields include those in the biomedical or related sciences such as biology, chemistry, physics, math, computer science, interdisciplinary research at the interface of the physical and biological sciences, among others.

Each fellow will receive an annual stipend of $30,000, an educational allowance of $3,000, and an annual institutional allowance of $10,000 for tuition. MIT is able to nominate 7 students for this fellowship.

More information is available on HHMI’s website.

Preliminary applications must be submitted electronically as a single consolidated PDF file to by 5pm on Thursday, October 8 for review by an internal MIT faculty committee.

Please feel free to contact Scott Tirrell, Manager of Graduate Fellowships in the ODGE with any questions by emailing or calling 617-324-7021.

September 18, 2015

SMART students autonomous golf carts

Singapore-MIT Alliance for Research and Technology (SMART) students: autonomous golf carts

At the International Conference on Intelligent Robots and Systems in September, members of the Singapore-MIT Alliance for Research and Technology (SMART) and their colleagues will describe an experiment conducted over six days at a large public garden in Singapore, in which self-driving golf carts ferried 500 tourists around winding paths trafficked by pedestrians, bicyclists, and the occasional monitor lizard.

“We would like to use robot cars to make transportation available to everyone,” says Daniela Rus, the Andrew and Erna Viterbi Professor in MIT’s Department of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science and a senior author on the conference paper. “The idea is, if you need a ride, you make a booking, maybe using your smartphone or maybe on the Internet, and the car just comes.”

SMART is a collaboration between MIT and the National Research Foundation of Singapore. With lead researchers drawn from both MIT and several Singaporean universities — chiefly the National University of Singapore and the Singapore University of Technology and Design — the program offers four-year graduate fellowships that cover tuition for students at the affiliated schools, as well as undergraduate and postdoctoral research fellowships.

Joining Rus on the paper are Emilio Frazzoli, a professor of aeronautics and astronautics at MIT; Marcelo Ang, an associate professor of mechanical engineering at the National University of Singapore; and 16 SMART students, postdocs, and staff members, from both the U.S. and Asia.  Read more.

September 17, 2015

Lee learning spoken language

Lee: Learning spoken language

Knowing a language’s phonemes can make it much easier for automated systems to learn to interpret speech. In the 2015 volume of Transactions of the Association for Computational Linguistics, MIT researchers describe a new machine-learning system that, like several systems before it, can learn to distinguish spoken words. But unlike its predecessors, it can also learn to distinguish lower-level phonetic units, such as syllables and phonemes.

Unlike the machine-learning systems that led to, say, the speech recognition algorithms on today’s smartphones, the MIT researchers’ system is unsupervised, which means it acts directly on raw speech files: It doesn’t depend on the laborious hand-annotation of its training data by human experts. So it could prove much easier to extend to new sets of training data and new languages.

The system could offer some insights into human speech acquisition. “When children learn a language, they don’t learn how to write first,” says Chia-ying Lee, who completed her PhD in computer science and engineering at MIT last year and is first author on the paper. “They just learn the language directly from speech. By looking at patterns, they can figure out the structures of language. That’s pretty much what our paper tries to do.”

Lee is joined on the paper by her former thesis advisor, Jim Glass, a senior research scientist at the Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory and head of the Spoken Language Systems Group, and Timothy O’Donnell, a postdoc in the MIT Department of Brain and Cognitive Sciences.  Read more

September 14, 2015

grama mit spinout milk

Grama: MIT spinout’s milk-chillers reduce spoilage in rural India

India is the world’s leading milk producer, with many of its people relying on milk as a primary source of income. Indian dairies buy milk from local farmers at village collection centers, and then sell the milk or use it to make dairy products.

But with rural India’s limited electric grid, often available for only several hours daily, keeping milk fresh — it must be refrigerated within a few hours of milking — becomes very difficult. Many dairies use expensive diesel generators for refrigeration, or risk high percentages of spoiled product: Of the roughly 130 million tons of milk produced by India each year, millions of tons go to waste or reach the market as low-quality dairy products that pose safety threats. All this also reduces the income of Indian farmers

Now MIT startup Promethean Power is bringing India milk-chillers that quickly drop the temperature of milk to reduce bacterial growth, even without electricity. Powering the chillers is a novel thermal battery that stores thermal energy when the grid’s available, and releases the energy without need of electricity. So far, Promethean has installed about 100 chillers for top dairies around India.

“Milk for many Indian farmers is literally like liquid cash,” says Promethean co-founder and chief technology officer Sorin Grama SM ’06. “An entire family may live off the money they make from milk. Each of our systems allows 20 to 30 farming families to generate a steady income by selling a portion of their milk to dairy processors.”  Read more.

September 11, 2015

First new cache coherence mechanism in 30 years

Yu: First new cache-coherence mechanism in 30 years

In a modern, multicore chip, every core—or processor—has its own small memory cache, where it stores frequently used data. But the chip also has a larger, shared cache, which all the cores can access. If one core tries to update data in the shared cache, other cores working on the same data need to know. So the shared cache keeps a directory of which cores have copies of which data. That directory takes up a significant chunk of memory. Envisioned chips will need a more efficient way of maintaining cache coherence.

At the International Conference on Parallel Architectures and Compilation Techniques in October, MIT researchers will unveil the first fundamentally new approach to cache coherence in more than three decades. Whereas with existing techniques, the directory’s memory allotment increases in direct proportion to the number of cores, with the new approach, it increases according to the logarithm of the number of cores.

“Directories guarantee that when a write happens, no stale copies of the data exist,” says Xiangyao Yu, an MIT graduate student in electrical engineering and computer science and first author on the new paper. “After this write happens, no read to the previous version should happen. So this write is ordered after all the previous reads in physical-time order.” Read more.

September 9, 2015

Macdonald researched a way to ID nuclear arms

Macdonald: A tool to identify nuclear weapons—without detection

“Energy is incredibly fundamental to life,” MIT graduate student Ruaridh Macdonald says. “That’s why I keep studying it.”

This tenet has been the thread throughout Macdonald’s nearly eight years at MIT — first as an undergraduate, then as a master’s student, and now as a PhD student — all spent studying nuclear science and engineering. Though he has remained engaged in this one department, he’s participated in a variety of projects, first studying reactor design as he pursued his master’s degree and now working on a nuclear weapons verification project in the Laboratory for Nuclear Security and Policy.

Transportable reactors

Macdonald, who grew up in West London, spent his grade school days equally interested in the arts and humanities and in physics. But he ultimately chose physics when faced with the U.K.’s school system, which requires students to pick a concentration, similar to a major in college.

“I still have immense respect for the arts, but I asked myself which would allow me to help people most broadly, and I chose science,” Macdonald says. Read more.

September 8, 2015

Visual cortex in blind children

Richardson: Brain function in blind children

In 2011, MIT neuroscientist Rebecca Saxe and colleagues reported that in blind adults, brain regions normally dedicated to vision processing instead participate in language tasks such as speech and comprehension. Now, in a study of blind children, Saxe’s lab has found that this transformation occurs very early in life, before the age of 4.

The study, appearing in the Journal of Neuroscience, suggests that the brains of young children are highly plastic, meaning that regions usually specialized for one task can adapt to new and very different roles. The findings also help to define the extent to which this type of remodeling is possible.

“In some circumstances, patches of cortex appear to take on other roles than the ones that they most typically have,” says Saxe, a professor of cognitive neuroscience and an associate member of MIT’s McGovern Institute for Brain Research. “One question that arises from that is, ‘What is the range of possible differences between what a cortical region typically does and what it could possibly do?’”

The paper’s lead author is Marina Bedny, a former MIT postdoc who is now an assistant professor at Johns Hopkins University. MIT graduate student Hilary Richardson is also an author of the paper. Read more.  Illustration: Jose-Luis Olivares/MIT

September 4, 2015

metallic gels

Holten-Andersen, Chen, Li, and Grindy: New luminescent materials

Researchers at MIT have developed a family of materials that can emit light of precisely controlled colors — even pure white light — and whose output can be tuned to respond to a wide variety of external conditions. The materials could find a variety of uses in detecting chemical and biological compounds, or mechanical and thermal conditions.

The material, a metallic polymer gel made using rare-earth elements, is described in a paper in the Journal of the American Chemical Society by assistant professor of materials science and engineering Niels Holten-Andersen, postdoc Pangkuan Chen, and graduate students Qiaochu Li and Scott Grindy.

The material, a light-emitting lanthanide metallogel, can be chemically tuned to emit light in response to chemical, mechanical, or thermal stimuli — potentially providing a visible output to indicate the presence of a particular substance or condition. Read more.

September 1, 2015


Chen: Observing invisible vibrations

For Justin Chen, a PhD student in the MIT Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering (CEE), there is more to observe in the built environment than meets the eye. So much more, in fact, that he has designed his entire academic attention CEE to center on structural health monitoring. “Everyday, people drive on bridges, enter buildings, obtain water through infrastructure, and so on,” Chen says.

“The central question my collaborators and I are trying to answer is: How do we keep infrastructure operational, even when it’s battered by the elements?” Although most would describe buildings as completely static, Chen says his work reveals structural movement the naked eye alone cannot perceive. Using a computer vision technique called motion magnification, Chen and his colleagues successfully catch imperceptibly tiny vibrations in structures. Read more of this article and a small interview with Chen at MIT News

August 31, 2015


Yu: Searching big data faster

For more than a decade, gene sequencers have been improving more rapidly than the computers required to make sense of their outputs. Searching for DNA sequences in existing genomic databases can already take hours, and the problem is likely to get worse. Recently, Bonnie Berger’s group at MIT’s Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory (CSAIL) has been investigating techniques to make biological and chemical data easier to analyze by, in some sense, compressing it.

In the latest issue of the journal Cell Systems, Berger and colleagues — first authors Noah Daniels, a postdoc in her group, and William Yu, a graduate student in applied mathematics, and David Danko, an undergraduate major in computational biology — present a theoretical analysis that demonstrates why their previous compression schemes have been so successful. They identify properties of data sets that make them amenable to compression and present an algorithm for determining whether a given data set has those properties. They also show that several existing databases of chemical compounds and biological molecules do indeed exhibit them. Read the full story at MIT News

August 28, 2015

Chan EECS Research

Chen: Crash-tolerant data storage

In a computer operating system, the file system is the part that writes data to disk and tracks where the data is stored. If the computer crashes while it’s writing data, the file system’s records can become corrupt. Hours of work could be lost, or programs could stop working properly. At the ACM Symposium on Operating Systems Principles in October, MIT researchers will present the first file system that is mathematically guaranteed not to lose track of data during crashes. Although the file system is slow by today’s standards, the techniques the researchers used to verify its performance can be extended to more sophisticated designs. Ultimately, formal verification could make it much easier to develop reliable, efficient file systems.

Nickolai Zeldovich, an associate professor of computer science and engineering and his colleagues — Frans Kaashoek, the Charles A. Piper Professor in MIT’s Department of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science (EECS); associate professor of computer science Adam Chlipala; Haogang Chen, a graduate student in EECS; and Daniel Ziegler, an undergraduate in EECS — established the reliability of their file system through a process known as formal verification. Read the full article at the MIT News Office

August 21, 2015

Policing SexTrafficking

Thakor: Policing sex trafficking in the digital age

Since 2013, AMBER Alerts — broadcast on television and radio since 1996 — have also been sent automatically to every mobile phone number in the United States. As a doctoral student in MIT’s Program in History, Anthropology, and Science, Technology, and Society (HASTS), Mitali Thakor is in tune with the pulse of technology and how it affects our lives — in particular, how it affects sex work and sex trafficking. Thakor, who majored in feminist studies and anthropology as an undergraduate at Stanford University, was initially interested in how sex workers themselves utilize emerging technologies. But over time, her focus has shifted to the opposite end of the spectrum: how sex work and trafficking are policed using digital tools. Her research has now spanned three countries — the United States, the Netherlands, and Thailand.

Earlier this year, Thakor, who ultimately aims for a career in academia, taught her first anthropology and gender studies class, called “Human Trafficking and Modern-Day Slavery.” For 19 MIT undergraduates, she built a curriculum around some of the very tensions in her research: Rather than only requiring reading from experts in the field, she also asked students to read prose and poetry from non-experts, and to look at art that engaged the topics of sex work, trafficking, and policing in the digital age. To read the full article on Thakor’s innovative research visit MIT News.

August 18, 2015

hermes robot

Ramos, Wang: A bipedal robot with human reflexes

Deep in the basement of MIT’s Building 3, a two-legged robot named HERMES is wreaking controlled havoc: punching through drywall, smashing soda cans, kicking over trash buckets, and karate-chopping boards in half. Its actions, however, are not its own. Just a few feet away, PhD student Joao Ramos stands on a platform, wearing an exoskeleton of wires and motors. Ramos’ every move is translated instantly to HERMES, much like a puppeteer controlling his marionette.

Ramos and his colleagues, including PhD student Albert Wang and Sangbae Kim, the Esther and Harold E. Edgerton Center Career Development Associate Professor of Mechanical Engineering, will present a paper on the interface at the IEEE/RSJ International Conference on Intelligent Robots and Systems in September. Read the full article at the MIT News Office

August 14, 2015


Souillard-Mandar: Could a pen change how we diagnose brain function?

For several decades, doctors have screened for conditions including Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s with the CDT, which asks subjects to draw an analog clock-face showing a specified time, and to copy a pre-drawn clock. But the test has limitations, because its benchmarks rely on doctors’ subjective judgments, such as determining whether a clock circle has “only minor distortion.” CSAIL researchers were particularly struck by the fact that CDT analysis was typically based on the person’s final drawing rather than on the process as a whole.

Enter the Anoto Live Pen, a digitizing ballpoint pen that measures its position on the paper upwards of 80 times a second, using a camera built into the pen. The pen provides data that are far more precise than can be measured on an ordinary drawing, and captures timing information that allows the system to analyze each and every one of a subject’s movements and hesitations. Some of the machine learning techniques they used were designed to produce “transparent” classifiers, which provide insights into what factors are important for screening and diagnosis. “These examples help calibrate the predictive power of each part of the drawing,” says first author William Souillard-Mandar, a graduate student at CSAIL. “They allow us to extract thousands of features from the drawing process that give hints about the subject’s cognitive state, and our algorithms help determine which ones can make the most accurate prediction.” Read the full article at the MIT News Office

August 12, 2015

Y Chromosome Research

Godfrey tackles a chromosome that half the world has — yet few understand

Alexander Godfrey, a PhD student in biology at MIT, is acutely fascinated by the Y chromosome, which confers maleness. This chromosome is often considered a genetic castaway — because its complexity makes it very difficult to study — but Godfrey is undeterred. Four years into his degree, he continues to push forward, attempting to get to know a chromosome that 50 percent of the population has, but few understand.

Composed of repeating DNA patterns, the Y chromosome is especially difficult to study. DNA is usually understood by breaking it up into pieces, and figuring out how active certain genes are by locating where the pieces came from — so if all of the pieces look the same, or very similar, the process becomes nearly impossible. Godfrey likens it to a puzzle full of pieces that are nearly indistinguishable: Putting the puzzle together, and seeing the big picture, is extremely difficult. Determined to contribute to an understudied field, he has delved into answering an enormous question: How do genes in the Y chromosome that are active throughout the body lead to differences between men and women? Read the full article at MIT NEWS

August 11, 2015


Futrell: How language gives your brain a break

Here’s a quick task: Take a look at the sentences below and decide which is the most effective.

(1) “John threw out the old trash sitting in the kitchen.”

(2) “John threw the old trash sitting in the kitchen out.”

Either sentence is grammatically acceptable, but you probably found the first one to be more natural. Why? Perhaps because of the placement of the word “out,” which seems to fit better in the middle of this word sequence than the end. In technical terms, the first sentence has a shorter “dependency length” — a shorter total distance, in words, between the crucial elements of a sentence. Now a new study of 37 languages by three MIT researchers has shown that most languages move toward “dependency length minimization” (DLM) in practice. That means language users have a global preference for more locally grouped dependent words, whenever possible.

“People want words that are related to each other in a sentence to be close together,” says Richard Futrell, a PhD student in the Department of Brain and Cognitive Sciences at MIT, and a lead author of a new paper detailing the results. “There is this idea that the distance between grammatically related words in a sentence should be short, as a principle.” The paper, published this week in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, suggests people modify language in this way because it makes things simpler for our minds — as speakers, listeners, and readers. Read the full article at MIT NEWS

August 10, 2015


Hernandez: The fashion for wearable technology may get rid of the need for passwords

Watches and spectacles were “wearable technology” long before the marketing maven who dreamed the term up was born. But now that some of these devices are fitted with gizmos which let their wearers monitor and record their lives down to the millisecond, many technologists are asking what else the data thus generated might be used for. One such is Javier Hernandez, a P.h. D. candidate at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). He thinks Apple Watches, Google Glasses and their kin might provide a solution to the problem of password inflation.

Ever longer, ever more numerous, ever more complicated passwords are a curse of modern life. Unless such passwords are used frequently, remembering them is close to impossible. So they get written down, obviating the point of their complexity. One way around this is to use unique bodily characteristics, known as biometrics, to identify people. Fingerprints and iris scans, in particular, have been tried, but both require special equipment. Mr Hernandez’s work offers an alternative that does not: ballistocardiography. Read the full article at The Economist.

August 7, 2015


Pillai: Object recognition for robots

John Leonard’s group in the MIT Department of Mechanical Engineering specializes in SLAM, or simultaneous localization and mapping, the technique whereby mobile autonomous robots map their environments and determine their locations. Last week, at the Robotics Science and Systems conference, members of Leonard’s group presented a new paper demonstrating how SLAM can be used to improve object-recognition systems, which will be a vital component of future robots that have to manipulate the objects around them in arbitrary ways.

The system uses SLAM information to augment existing object-recognition algorithms. Its performance should thus continue to improve as computer-vision researchers develop better recognition software, and roboticists develop better SLAM software. “Considering object recognition as a black box, and considering SLAM as a black box, how do you integrate them in a nice manner?” asks Sudeep Pillai, a graduate student in computer science and engineering and first author on the new paper. “How do you incorporate probabilities from each viewpoint over time? That’s really what we wanted to achieve.” Read the full article at MIT NEWS

August 6, 2015


Cantu: Computing at the speed of light

For Sergio Cantu, a second-year PhD student in physics, the future of computing is one in which information moves at the speed of light, and through a network with unparalleled security. In Cantu’s eyes, much of this future is predicated on lasers — which he’s worked with not only as a graduate student, but as an undergraduate at the University of Texas at Brownsville and in the year after graduating, as a student in MIT’s Physics Bridge Program, which aims to facilitate students’ transition to PhD coursework. It was during the latter experience that he first set foot in MIT’s Center for Ultracold Atoms, where he conducts research today. Cantu uses light as an information carrier in computing and calculating. Because of light’s unmatched speed, it could support extremely fast and efficient computing, well beyond our current capabilities. But, he cautions, light comes with challenges — many of which are caused by its very speed.

“It doesn’t slow down, it’s always moving, and that makes it very hard to use as a carrier of information,” Cantu says. “How do you imprint information on something that you can’t pin down?”

One of the techniques that Cantu and his colleagues use is called electromagnetically induced transparency. This technique allows scientists to slow the speed of propagation of light, while it travels through an atomic gas, to about 100 meters per second, more than a million times slower than the speed of light in a vacuum. This allows him to manipulate matter — clusters of atoms — one unit of light at a time. Light doesn’t like to interact with much — sometimes not even with itself — but Cantu and his team can map specific interactions between light and atoms, at the level of individual photons, and use that as a way to transmit and exchange information. Read the full article at MIT News

August 5, 2015


Hussam: Understanding economic behavior through hygiene

Graduate student Reshmaan Hussam has always seen economics as more than a collection of numbers: For her, it also entails history, health, and human behavior. Now, as a fifth-year PhD student in economics at MIT, she applies this outlook to understanding sanitation and hygiene behavior in the developing world, with an eye toward affecting policy and behavioral changes.

Among the many factors that affect economic decision-making is health. Hussam quickly realized that a key means to self-empowerment is empowerment in health and hygiene — where women, particularly mothers, often play a significant role.

“When you’re sick, that becomes your entire focus,” she says. “Repeated, preventable illnesses — with which the developing world is too familiar — have huge, long-term physical and cognitive consequences. Education, labor, and financial security suffer — all of which are channels to self-determination and empowerment.” “Every home has soap, and everyone knows that handwashing with soap is important, yet hardly anyone does it,” Hussam says. “Existing public health campaigns don’t ask why. If we want to see progress on these simple but valuable preventable health activities, we need to understand the behavioral reasons for why people aren’t taking up [healthy habits].” Read the full article at MIT News

August 3, 2015


Steponaitis, Andrews: Stalagmites pinpoint drying of American West

Researchers from MIT, David McGee and graduate students Elena Steponaitis and Alexandra Andrews and elsewhere have now determined that the western U.S. — a region including Nevada, Utah, Oregon, and parts of California — was a rather damp setting until approximately 8,200 years ago, when the region began to dry out, eventually assuming the arid environments we see today.

The team identified this climatic turning point after analyzing stalagmites from a cave in Great Basin National Park in Nevada. Stalagmites are pillars of deposited cave drippings that form over hundreds of thousands of years, as water slowly seeps down through the ground, and into caves. A stalagmite’s layers are essentially a record of a region’s moisture over time.

The researchers used a dating technique to determine the ages of certain layers within two stalagmites, then analyzed these layers for chemical signatures of moisture. They dated stalagmite layers ranging from 4,000 to 16,000 years old, observing that moisture content appears to drop dramatically in samples that are less than 8,200 years old. Read the full story at MIT News

July 31, 2015


Mendis, Bosboom, Wu: What takes coders months, CSAIL’s “Helium” can do in an hour

Last year, MIT computer scientists and Adobe engineers came together to try to solve a major problem that many companies face: bit-rot. A good example is Adobe’s successful Photoshop photo editor, which just celebrated its 25th birthday. Over the years Photoshop had accumulated heaps of code that had been optimized for what is now old hardware.

“For high-performance code used for image-processing, you have to optimize the heck out of the software,” says Saman Amarasinghe, a professor at MIT and researcher at the Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory (CSAIL). “The downside is that the code becomes much less effective and much more difficult to understand.” This results in what Amarasinghe describes as “a billion-dollar problem”: companies like Adobe having to devote massive manpower to going back into the code every few years and, by hand, testing out a bunch of different strategies to try to patch it.

The paper was written by Charith Mendis, fellow graduate students Jeffrey Bosboom and Kevin Wu, research scientist Shoaib Kamil, postdoc Jonathan Ragan-Kelley PhD ’14, Amarasinghe, and researchers from Adobe and Google. Read the full article at MIT NEWS

July 29, 2015


Long’s team develops Automatic Bug Repair System

At the Association for Computing Machinery’s Programming Language Design and Implementation conference this month, MIT researchers presented a new system that repairs dangerous software bugs by automatically importing functionality from other, more secure applications. Remarkably, the system, dubbed CodePhage, doesn’t require access to the source code of the applications whose functionality it’s borrowing. Instead, it analyzes the applications’ execution and characterizes the types of security checks they perform. As a consequence, it can import checks from applications written in programming languages other than the one in which the program it’s repairing was written.

Sidiroglou-Douskos and his coauthors — MIT professor of computer science and engineering Martin Rinard, graduate student Fan Long, and Eric Lahtinen, a researcher in Rinard’s group — refer to the program CodePhage is repairing as the “recipient” and the program whose functionality it’s borrowing as the “donor.” To begin its analysis, CodePhage requires two sample inputs: one that causes the recipient to crash and one that doesn’t. A bug-locating program that the same group reported in March, dubbed DIODE, generates crash-inducing inputs automatically. But a user may simply have found that trying to open a particular file caused a crash. Read the full article at MIT News

July 23, 2015


Jun, Liu, Xu: Cutting cost and power consumption for big data

Random-access memory, or RAM, is where computers like to store the data they’re working on. A processor can retrieve data from RAM tens of thousands of times more rapidly than it can from the computer’s disk drive. But in the age of big data, data sets are often much too large to fit in a single computer’s RAM. Sequencing data describing a single large genome could take up the RAM of somewhere between 40 and 100 typical computers.

Flash memory — the type of memory used by most portable devices — could provide an alternative to conventional RAM for big-data applications. It’s about a tenth as expensive, and it consumes about a tenth as much power. The problem is that it’s also a tenth as fast. But at the International Symposium on Computer Architecture in June, MIT researchers presented a new system that, for several common big-data applications, should make servers using flash memory as efficient as those using conventional RAM, while preserving their power and cost savings.

Joining Arvind on the new paper are Sang Woo Jun and Ming Liu, MIT graduate students in computer science and engineering and joint first authors; their fellow grad student Shuotao Xu; Sungjin Lee, a postdoc in Arvind’s group; Myron King and Jamey Hicks, who did their PhDs with Arvind and were researchers at Quanta Computer when the new system was developed; and one of their colleagues from Quanta, John Ankcorn — who is also an MIT alumnus. Read the full article at MIT NEWS

July 22, 2015


Pahlavan: Why do puddles stop spreading?

When you spill a bit of water onto a tabletop, the puddle spreads — and then stops, leaving a well-defined area of water with a sharp boundary. There’s just one problem: The formulas scientists use to describe such a fluid flow say that the water should just keep spreading endlessly. Everyone knows that’s not the case — but why?

This mystery has now been solved by researchers at MIT — and while this phenomenon might seem trivial, the finding’s ramifications could be significant: Understanding such flowing fluids is essential for processes from the lubrication of gears and machinery to the potential sequestration of carbon dioxide emissions in porous underground formations.The new findings are reported in the journal Physical Review Letters in a paper by Ruben Juanes, an associate professor of civil and environmental engineering, graduate student Amir Pahlavan, research associate Luis Cueto-Felgueroso, and mechanical engineering professor Gareth McKinley.

“The classic thin-film model describes the spreading of a liquid film, but it doesn’t predict it stopping,” Pahlavan says. It turns out that the problem is one of scale, he says: It’s only at the molecular level that the forces responsible for stopping the flow begin to show up. And even though these forces are minuscule, their effect changes how the liquid behaves in a way that is obvious at a much larger scale. “Within a macroscopic view of this problem, there’s nothing that stops the puddle from spreading. There’s something missing here,” Pahlavan says. Read the full article at MIT NEWS

July 21, 2015


Earle: NASA’s New Horizons mission and first images of Pluto

Tuesday July 11 will go down as a huge day in the history of NASA. After traveling 3 billion miles over the course of nearly a decade, the spacecraft called New Horizons reached its target, passing close by the dwarf planet, Pluto. Members of the New Horizons science team, including MIT Professor Richard Binzel, graduate student Alissa Earle (MIT), and Cristina Dalle Ore (SETI Institute), react to seeing the spacecraft’s last and sharpest image of Pluto before closest approach later in the day. It was also a big day for MIT Professor Richard Binzel, who spent almost 35 years trying to get a mission to Pluto. For the past 15 of those years, he’s worked to make it possible for New Horizons to collect immense amounts of data from the ninth planet from the sun. He spent the day observing and celebrating at mission headquarters at the Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory in Laurel, Maryland. Follow this radio news item at Radio Boston WBUR.

July 16, 2015


Abraham: Networking groups come up short on referrals for women

“It’s not what you know, but who you know” says the old adage, but new research shows when it comes to business referrals, gender can matter a great deal. Mabel Abraham, PhD ’15, spent two years reviewing years of records from a referral-generating organization where entrepreneurs share contacts, pitch their services, and win new business. Her findings help explain the disproportionate results achieved by women in social networks, notably the disparity in receiving referrals from colleagues.

When it came to referring colleagues to others—friends, family and clients—women came up short in being connected to new business. Abraham found the gap is largely driven by male-dominated fields, where women received fewer referrals than men in the same field. Abraham calls this “anticipatory third-party bias” to explain when group members “expect that a client, friend, or family member has a preference for men over women, they disproportionately give referrals to male rather than female network group members.” Follow the full article on this research at the MIT Sloan Newsroom

July 15, 2015


DESERT LIFE: Field Studies of Art + Nature in the Southwest

The ART+BIO Collaborative, a Cambridge, MA non-profit, is offering DESERT LIFE: Field Studies of Art+Nature in the Southwest this August 3-9, providing a great travel opportunity that will bring together a unique group of Biologists and Artists to explore the desert borderlands of Texas and New Mexico. The program is designed for students, artists, scientists, professionals and people generally interested in nature, art, and biology. Register today! DESERT LIFE is a hands-on, immersive, and project-based program that integrates biology and art in the field. We camp at various sites in west Texas and southwest New Mexico. The program provides an immersive experience of the diverse environments of the Chihuahuan Desert, such as white sand dunes, black lava rocks, mountain caves, and riparian habitats.

See photos and get more information, and help spread the word about this unique summer course to anyone who may be interested. Please email if you have questions. Photo: Swallowtail Garden Seeds

July 15, 2015


Mirvakili: Research shows tiny wires could provide a big energy boost

Wearable electronic devices for health and fitness monitoring are a rapidly growing area of consumer electronics; one of their biggest limitations is the capacity of their tiny batteries to deliver enough power to transmit data. Now, researchers at MIT and in Canada have found a promising new approach to delivering the short but intense bursts of power needed by such small devices. The key is a new approach to making supercapacitors — devices that can store and release electrical power in such bursts, which are needed for brief transmissions of data from wearable devices such as heart-rate monitors, computers, or smartphones, the researchers say. They may also be useful for other applications where high power is needed in small volumes, such as autonomous microrobots.

The new approach uses yarns, made from nanowires of the element niobium, as the electrodes in tiny supercapacitors (which are essentially pairs of electrically conducting fibers with an insulator between). The concept is described in a paper in the journal ACS Applied Materials and Interfaces by MIT professor of mechanical engineering Ian W. Hunter, doctoral student Seyed M. Mirvakili, and three others at the University of British Columbia. Read the full article on MIT News

July 14, 2015


Taylor and Simon: Pushing the limits of pump design for small farmers in India

The Ganges River basin of eastern India is some of the most fertile farmland in the world. With shallow groundwater and rich soil, the area is instrumental in India’s agricultural ecosystem. However, all is not well for the roughly 480 million people who rely on the basin for their livelihood. “Eastern India is one of the lowest agricultural productivity areas in the country, and it should be much higher, because it has excellent water resources,” says Katherine Taylor, graduate student in mechanical engineering and a fellow at the Tata Center for Technology and Design, part of the MIT Energy Initiative.

Taylor is part of an MIT team developing a solar-powered pump designed to the specifications of small-acreage farmers in eastern India, many of whom currently use costly, inefficient diesel pumps to irrigate their crops, or have no pumping capacity at all. The project grew out of the MIT course 2.760 (Global Engineering), where Taylor met Kevin Simon, another Tata Fellow and a graduate student in systems engineering, and Marcos Esparza, a senior in mechanical engineering. Led by Assistant Professor Amos Winter, “we explored pump design, and a good idea emerged. In true Tata Center spirit, we ran with it.” At a time when Indian agriculture is edging toward crisis, Taylor, Simon, and Esparza believe their pump can contribute to higher yields and greater profits for these small farmers. Read the full article at MIT News

July 12, 2015


Davis: The camera that can reconstruct sound from another room

Researchers at MIT CSAIL have been experimenting with a technique that can reconstruct sound from silent video recordings. Using powerful high-speed cameras and software it is possible to rebuild sound from objects in a different room. “I think what’s really different about this technology is that it provides you with a way to image this information,” says graduate student Abe Davis. Follow the coverage of this research in a video by BBC News. Photo by KEIK Bureau

July 10, 2015


The Completion Agenda: Revising Your Dissertation

If you had to pick a cliché that best describes completing a dissertation, “it ain’t over till it’s over” would work well. So far in this series we have discussed finishing a submittable draft and successfully defending the dissertation. But as every doctoral candidate knows, no matter how well the defense goes you are very likely not quite free and clear yet.

In my case, while I waited outside the meeting room, my committee discussed my dissertation for either 10 minutes or two hours; I honestly can’t recall through the fog of tension and time. I do remember encountering a friend in the hallway to whom I described my situation. She asked, “What’s the best possible outcome?” I had no doubt: “Ideally, they pass me without asking for any revisions.” She arched an eyebrow and asked in Spock-like tones: “Has that happened with any dissertation defense, ever?”

Obviously, every field is different, with varying requirements for the dissertation. Based on the many hundreds of conversations I have had with Ph.D. students in all sorts of disciplines, I have put together a to-do list that may help you successfully make the revisions sought by your committee. Read the full article at The Chronicle of Higher Education. Photo by Graham Holliday

July 9, 2015


Boyer: Helping students stick with MOOCs

MOOCs — massive open online courses — grant huge numbers of people access to world-class educational resources, but they also suffer high rates of attrition. To some degree, that’s inevitable: Many people who enroll in MOOCs may have no interest in doing homework, but simply plan to listen to video lectures in their spare time. Others, however, may begin courses with the firm intention of completing them but get derailed by life’s other demands. Identifying those people before they drop out and providing them with extra help could make their MOOC participation much more productive.

The problem is that you don’t know who’s actually dropped out — or, in MOOC parlance, “stopped out” — until the MOOC has been completed. One missed deadline does not a stopout make; but after the second or third missed deadline, it may be too late for an intervention to do any good. Last week, at the International Conference on Artificial Intelligence in Education, Kalyan Veeramachaneni, a research scientist at MIT’s Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory who conducted the study together with Sebastien Boyer, a graduate student in MIT’s Technology and Policy Program showed that a dropout-prediction model trained on data from one offering of a course can help predict which students will stop out of the next offering. The prediction remains fairly accurate even if the organization of the course changes, so that the data collected during one offering doesn’t exactly match the data collected during the next. Read the full article on this technology at the MIT News Room

July 7, 2015


El-Damak: Toward tiny, solar-powered sensors

Last week, at the Symposia on VLSI Technology and Circuits, MIT researchers presented a new power converter chip that can harvest more than 80 percent of the energy trickling into it, even at the extremely low power levels characteristic of tiny solar cells. Previous ultralow-power converters that used the same approach had efficiencies of only 40 or 50 percent.

Moreover, the researchers’ chip achieves those efficiency improvements while assuming additional responsibilities. Where most of its ultralow-power predecessors could use a solar cell to either charge a battery or directly power a device, this new chip can do both, and it can power the device directly from the battery. All of those operations also share a single inductor — the chip’s main electrical component — which saves on circuit board space but increases the circuit complexity even further. Nonetheless, the chip’s power consumption remains low.

“We still want to have battery-charging capability, and we still want to provide a regulated output voltage,” says Dina Reda El-Damak, an MIT graduate student in electrical engineering and computer science and first author on the new paper. “We need to regulate the input to extract the maximum power, and we really want to do all these tasks with inductor sharing and see which operational mode is the best. And we want to do it without compromising the performance, at very limited input power levels — 10 nanowatts to 1 microwatt — for the Internet of things.” Read the full article at MIT News

July 6, 2015


Ramirez artificially recalls happier memories to reverse depression

MIT neuroscientists have shown that they can cure the symptoms of depression in mice by artificially reactivating happy memories that were formed before the onset of depression. The findings, described in the June 18 issue of Nature, offer a possible explanation for the success of psychotherapies in which depression patients are encouraged to recall pleasant experiences. They also suggest new ways to treat depression by manipulating the brain cells where memories are stored. The researchers believe this kind of targeted approach could have fewer side effects than most existing antidepressant drugs, which bathe the entire brain.

“Once you identify specific sites in the memory circuit which are not functioning well, or whose boosting will bring a beneficial consequence, there is a possibility of inventing new medical technology where the improvement will be targeted to the specific part of the circuit, rather than administering a drug and letting that drug function everywhere in the brain,” says Susumu Tonegawa, the Picower Professor of Biology and Neuroscience, director of the RIKEN-MIT Center for Neural Circuit Genetics at MIT’s Picower Institute for Learning and Memory, and senior author of the paper.

Although this type of intervention is not yet possible in humans, “This type of analysis gives information as to where to target specific disorders,” Tonegawa adds. Graduate student Steve Ramirez is the paper’s lead author. Read the full story on MIT News.

June 23, 2015

MRI Conflict Resolution

Landau-Wells: MRIs for a More Peaceful World

An MRI scanner is an unusual tool for resolving war and conflict, but an MIT collaboration now underway is deploying MRIs as an instrument for peace. The goal of the collaboration—among the Social Cognitive Neuroscience Lab; the Department of Political Science; and Beyond Conflict, an international nongovernmental organization dedicated to global challenges to peace and reconciliation—is to use knowledge of neuroscience to develop innovative, more effective conflict-resolution strategies. Already the groups are putting into practice what they are learning in instances of extreme prejudice against Roma populations in Hungary, and between Israelis and Palestinians. Marika Landau-Wells, a PhD student in political science and in MIT’s Comparative Politics and Security Studies Program that focuses on war and conflict, is helping to bridge conflict resolution, neuroscience, and political science. Read the full article on this research at MIT Spectrum. Photo: Len Rubenstein