The minds behind the Brain Activity Map
02:09 - Source: CNN

Editor’s Note: This story marks the debut of our ongoing “Inside the Brain” series. It initially published on Sunday; we are republishing to add President Barack Obama’s announcement of $100 million in funding for the Brain Activity Map project.

Story highlights

Ed Boyden has won many awards for innovation in brain science

His tools could be used in mapping the brain

Optogenetics: Making neurons respond to light so that they can be manipulated

Boyden and Karl Deisseroth pioneered this technique

Cambridge, Massachusetts and Atlanta CNN  — 

Ed Boyden tilts his head downward, remaining still except for his eyes, which dart back and forth between blinks for a full 10 seconds. Then, as if coming up for air from the sea of knowledge, he takes a breath, lifts his head back up and begins to speak again.

During these contemplative moments, you have to wonder what’s going on inside the head of this young scientist who, at age 33, has already helped invent influential technologies in the study of the human brain.

It made sense when he told me, on a cold February day in his office at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, “I guess I was always a philosopher at heart as a kid.”

The morning of our meeting, The New York Times had just reported the Obama administration is considering funding an initiative called the Brain Activity Map project.

This is a collaboration of researchers who are seeking tools to map the human brain in unprecedented detail. A better understanding of how thoughts lead to actions, and how neural circuits lead to disease, could influence treatments for such conditions as epilepsy, autism, dementia, schizophrenia and even paralysis. Boyden is already working on such tools.

Clearly excited, Boyden bounces from his computer, where he’s getting “zillions” of e-mails about the Brain Activity Map news, to the small table where we’re speaking. In December, he participated in a brainstorming session in Washington about the endeavor. After our meeting, he tells me, he’ll lead a conference call with other researchers about next steps.