TEDxBoston 2013

Steve Ramirez, Xu Liu, Ph.D.

Brain Inceptors

How can light shape our minds?

When we close our eyes and think back to our childhood, to our first kiss, or to this morning’s breakfast, our brains perform the remarkable task of mental time travel and thereby enrich our lives with memories. How does neural machinery give rise to something as seemingly ephemeral as memory? Recently, Hollywood inspired our imaginations by proposing that memories could be artificially triggered (think Total Recall), erased (think Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind), or even implanted (think Inception). Now, neuroscience has plucked these ideas from the tree of science fiction and grounded them in experimental reality. The catch: our subjects are the movie stars of the laboratory setting–rodents. This talk will introduce how revolutionary techniques from our lab have made it possible to isolate and manipulate specific memories at the level of single brain cells with just flickers of light, as well as the societal ramifications of doing so.


Speakers' Biographies

Steve Ramirez

Steve is a graduate student at MIT’s Brain and Cognitive Sciences department pursuing a Ph.D. in neuroscience. His work focuses on finding where single memories are located throughout the brain, genetically tricking the brain cells that house these memories to respond to brief pulses of light, and then using these same flickers of light to reactivate, erase, and implant memories. The goals of his research are twofold: to figure out how the brain gives rise to the seemingly ephemeral process of memory, and to predict what happens when specific brain pieces breakdown to impair cognition. In the past 2 years, his projects have been covered by New Scientist, Discover, Scientific American, and Gizmodo.

When he’s not tinkering with memories in lab, Steve enjoys teaching classes about all things brain, which has won him multiple teaching awards at MIT. He’s also a fan of running the kinds of distances that can burn off a few glasses of liquid hops and, since he hails from Boston, you can often find him cheering for every sports team the city offers. A life in academics has taught Steve three things: he wants to be a professor who runs a lab that plucks questions from the tree of science fiction to ground them in experimental reality; a team-oriented approach to science makes research and teaching feel more like a friendship-filled hobby and less like a job; and, of course, there’s an upside to everything.


Xu Liu, Ph.D.

Xu Liu received his Ph. D. from Baylor College of Medicine, Houston, Texas. During his Ph. D., he studied the mechanism of learning and memory using fruit fly as a model system. By changing the expression of certain genes in the fly brain, he generated smart flies that can learn many times faster than their peer. Using live imaging, he also detected learning induced changes in the brain cells and observed memory formation inside the brain with light. After graduation, he moved to MIT and joined Dr. Susumu Tonegawas lab as a postdoctoral associate. He continued his pursuit of memory with light there. Instead of just watching memory formation, he developed a system in mice where one can not only identify and label cells in the brain for a particular memory, but also turn these cells on and off with light to activate this memory at will. This work has received coverage by media worldwide, including The Boston Globe, Scientific American, Science & Vie, Daily Mail, and The Guardian.

Graphic Facilitation: