MIT News - Mental health MIT News is dedicated to communicating to the media and the public the news and achievements of the students, faculty, staff and the greater MIT community. en Wed, 16 Oct 2019 13:15:01 -0400 Controlling our internal world Design principles from robotics help researchers decipher elements controlling mental processes in the brain. Wed, 16 Oct 2019 13:15:01 -0400 Sabbi Lall | McGovern Institute for Brain Research <div> <p>Olympic skaters can launch, perform multiple aerial turns, and land gracefully, anticipating imperfections and reacting quickly to correct course. To make such elegant movements, the brain must have an internal model of the body to control, predict, and make almost-instantaneous adjustments to motor commands. So-called “internal models” are a fundamental concept in engineering and have long been suggested to underlie control of movement by the brain, but what about processes that occur in the absence of movement, such as contemplation, anticipation, planning?</p> <p>Using a novel combination of task design, data analysis, and modeling, MIT neuroscientist <a href="" rel="noopener noreferrer" target="_blank">Mehrdad Jazayeri</a> and colleagues now provide compelling evidence that the core elements of an internal model also control purely mental processes.</p> <p>“During my thesis, I realized that I’m interested not so much in how our senses react to sensory inputs, but instead in how my internal model of the world helps me make sense of those inputs,” says Jazayeri, the Robert A. Swanson Career Development Professor of Life Sciences, a member of MIT’s McGovern Institute for Brain Research, and the senior author of the study.</p> <p>Indeed, understanding the building blocks exerting control of such mental processes could help to paint a better picture of disruptions in mental disorders, such as&nbsp;<a href="" rel="noopener noreferrer" target="_blank">schizophrenia</a>.</p> <p><strong>Internal models for mental processes</strong></p> <p>Scientists working on the motor system have long theorized that the brain overcomes noisy and slow signals using an accurate internal model of the body. This internal model serves three critical functions: it provides motor to control movement, simulates upcoming movement to overcome delays, and uses feedback to make real-time adjustments.</p> <p>“The framework that we currently use to think about how the brain controls our actions is one that we have borrowed from robotics: We use controllers, simulators, and sensory measurements to control machines and train operators,” explains Reza Shadmehr, a professor at the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine who was not involved with the study. “That framework has largely influenced how we imagine our brain controlling our movements.”</p> <p>Jazazyeri and colleagues wondered whether the same framework might explain the control principles governing mental states in the absence of any movement.</p> <p>“When we’re simply sitting, thoughts and images run through our heads and, fundamental to intellect, we can control them,” explains lead author Seth Egger, a former postdoc in the Jazayeri lab who is now at Duke University. “We wanted to find out what’s happening between our ears when we are engaged in thinking.”</p> <p>Imagine, for example, a sign language interpreter keeping up with a fast speaker. To track speech accurately, the translator continuously anticipates where the speech is going, rapidly adjusting when the actual words deviate from the prediction. The interpreter could be using an internal model to anticipate upcoming words, and use feedback to make adjustments on the fly.</p> <p><strong>1-2-3-Go</strong></p> <p>Hypothesizing about how the components of an internal model function in scenarios such as translation is one thing. Cleanly measuring and proving the existence of these elements is much more complicated, as the activity of the controller, simulator, and feedback are intertwined. To tackle this problem, Jazayeri and colleagues devised a clever task with primate models in which the controller, simulator, and feedback act at distinct times.</p> <p>In this task, called “1-2-3-Go,” the animal sees three consecutive flashes (1, 2, and 3) that form a regular beat, and learns to make an eye movement (Go) when they anticipate the 4th flash should occur. During the task, researchers measured neural activity in a region of the frontal cortex they had previously linked to the timing of movement.</p> <p>Jazayeri and colleagues had clear predictions about when the controller would act (between the third flash and “Go”) and when feedback would be engaged (with each flash of light). The key surprise came when researchers saw evidence for the simulator anticipating the third flash. This unexpected neural activity has dynamics that resemble the controller, but was not associated with a response. In other words, the researchers uncovered a covert plan that functions as the simulator, thus uncovering all three elements of an internal model for a mental process, the planning and anticipation of “Go” in the “1-2-3-Go” sequence.</p> <p>“Jazayeri’s work is important because it demonstrates how to study mental simulation in animals,” explains Shadmehr, “and where in the brain that simulation is taking place.”</p> <p>Having found how and where to measure an internal model in action, Jazayeri and colleagues now plan to ask whether these control strategies can explain how primates effortlessly generalize their knowledge from one behavioral context to another. For example, how does an interpreter rapidly adjust when someone with widely different speech habits takes the podium? This line of investigation promises to shed light on high-level mental capacities of the primate brain that simpler animals seem to lack, that go awry in mental disorders, and that designers of artificial intelligence systems so fondly seek.</p> </div> MIT neuroscientists have shown that the core elements of an internal model also control purely mental processes.McGovern Institute, Brain and cognitive sciences, School of Science, Research, Neuroscience, Mental health Alzheimer’s plaque emerges early and deep in the brain Clumps of amyloid protein emerge early in deep regions, such as the mammillary body, and march outward in the brain along specific circuits. Tue, 08 Oct 2019 12:00:01 -0400 David Orenstein | Picower Institute <p>Long before symptoms like memory loss even emerge, the underlying pathology of Alzheimer’s disease, such as an accumulation of amyloid protein plaques, is well underway in the brain. A longtime goal of the field has been to understand where it starts so that future interventions could begin there. A new study by MIT neuroscientists at The Picower Institute for Learning and Memory could help those efforts by pinpointing the regions with the earliest emergence of amyloid in the brain of a prominent mouse model of the disease. Notably, the study also shows that the degree of amyloid accumulation in one of those same regions of the human brain correlates strongly with the progression of the disease.</p> <div class="cms-placeholder-content-video"></div> <p>“Alzheimer’s is a neurodegenerative disease, so in the end you can see a lot of neuron loss,” says Wen-Chin “Brian” Huang, co-lead author of the study and a postdoc in the lab of co-senior author Li-Huei Tsai, Picower Professor of Neuroscience and director of the Picower Institute. “At that point, it would be hard to cure the symptoms. It’s really critical to understand what circuits and regions show neuronal dysfunction early in the disease. This will, in turn, facilitate the development of effective therapeutics.”</p> <p>In addition to Huang, the study’s co-lead authors are Rebecca Canter, a former member of the Tsai lab, and Heejin Choi, a former member of the lab of co-senior author Kwanghun Chung, associate professor of chemical engineering and a member of the Picower Institute and the MIT Institute for Medical Engineering and Science.</p> <p><strong>Tracking plaques</strong></p> <p>Many research groups have made progress in recent years by tracing amyloid’s path in the brain using technologies such as positron emission tomography, and by looking at brains post-mortem, but the new study in <em>Communications Biology </em>adds substantial new evidence from the 5XFAD mouse model because it presents an unbiased look at the entire brain as early as one month of age. The study reveals that amyloid begins its terrible march in deep brain regions such as the mammillary body, the lateral septum, and the subiculum before making its way along specific brain circuits that ultimately lead it to the hippocampus, a key region for memory, and the cortex, a key region for cognition.</p> <p>The team used SWITCH, a technology developed by Chung, to label amyloid plaques and to clarify the whole brains of 5XFAD mice so that they could be imaged in fine detail at different ages. The team was consistently able to see that plaques first emerged in the deep brain structures and then tracked along circuits, such as the Papez memory circuit, to spread throughout the brain by six-12 months (a mouse’s lifespan is up to three years).</p> <p>The findings help to cement an understanding that has been harder to obtain from human brains, Huang says, because post-mortem dissection cannot easily account for how the disease developed over time and PET scans don’t offer the kind of resolution the new study provides from the mice.</p> <p><strong>Key validations</strong></p> <p>Importantly, the team directly validated a key prediction of their mouse findings in human tissue: If the mammillary body is indeed a very early place that amyloid plaques emerge, then the density of those plaques should increase in proportion with how far advanced the disease is. Sure enough, when the team used SWITCH to examine the mammillary bodies of post-mortem human brains at different stages of the disease, they saw exactly that relationship: The later the stage, the more densely plaque-packed the mammillary body was.</p> <p>“This suggests that human brain alterations in Alzheimer’s disease look similar to what we observe in mouse,” the authors wrote. “Thus we propose that amyloid-beta deposits start in susceptible subcortical structures and spread to increasingly complex memory and cognitive networks with age.”</p> <p>The team also performed experiments to determine whether the accumulation of plaques they observed were of real disease-related consequence for neurons in affected regions. One of the hallmarks of Alzheimer’s disease is a vicious cycle in which amyloid makes neurons too easily excited, and overexcitement causes neurons to produce more amyloid. The team measured the excitability of neurons in the mammillary body of 5XFAD mice and found they were more excitable than otherwise similar mice that did not harbor the 5XFAD set of genetic alterations.</p> <p>In a preview of a potential future therapeutic strategy, when the researchers used a genetic approach to silence the neurons in the mammillary body of some 5XFAD mice but left neurons in others unaffected, the mice with silenced neurons produced less amyloid.</p> <p>While the study findings help explain much about how amyloid spreads in the brain over space and time, they also raise new questions, Huang said. How might the mammillary body affect memory, and what types of cells are most affected there?</p> <p>“This study sets a stage for further investigation of how dysfunction in these brain regions and circuits contributes to the symptoms of Alzheimer’s disease,” he says.</p> <p>In addition to Huang, Canter, Choi, Tsai, and Chung, the paper’s other authors are Jun Wang, Lauren Ashley Watson, Christine Yao, Fatema Abdurrob, Stephanie Bousleiman, Jennie Young, David Bennett and Ivana Dellalle.</p> <p>The National Institutes of Health, the JPB Foundation, Norman B. Leventhal and Barbara Weedon fellowships, The Burroughs Wellcome Fund, the Searle Scholars Program, a Packard Award, a NARSAD Young Investigator Award, and the NCSOFT Cultural Foundation funded the research.</p> A white-stained cluster of amyloid plaque proteins, a hallmark of Alzheimer's disease pathology, is evident in the mammillary body of a 2-month-old Alzheimer's model mouse. A new study finds that plaques begin in such deep regions and spread throughout the brain along specific circuits.Image: Picower InstitutePicower Institute for Learning and Memory, School of Science, School of Engineering, Neuroscience, Alzheimer's, Institute for Medical Engineering and Science (IMES), Brain and cognitive sciences, Disease, Mental health, Research Study: Better sleep habits lead to better college grades Data on MIT students underscore the importance of getting enough sleep; bedtime also matters. Tue, 01 Oct 2019 05:00:00 -0400 David L. Chandler | MIT News Office <p>Two MIT professors have found a strong relationship between students’ grades and how much sleep they’re getting. What time students go to bed and the consistency of their sleep habits also make a big difference. And no, getting a good night’s sleep just before a big test is not good enough — it takes several nights in a row of good sleep to make a difference.</p> <p>Those are among the conclusions from an experiment in which 100 students in an MIT engineering class were given Fitbits, the popular wrist-worn devices that track a person’s activity 24/7, in exchange for the researchers’ access to a semester’s worth of their activity data. The findings — some unsurprising, but some quite unexpected — are reported today in the journal <em>Science of Learning </em>in a paper by MIT postdoc Kana Okano, professors Jeffrey Grossman and John Gabrieli, and two others.</p> <p>One of the surprises was that individuals who went to bed after some particular threshold time — for these students, that tended to be 2 a.m., but it varied from one person to another — tended to perform less well on their tests no matter how much total sleep they ended up getting.</p> <p>The study didn’t start out as research on sleep at all. Instead, Grossman was trying to find a correlation between physical exercise and the academic performance of students in his class 3.091 (Introduction to Solid-State Chemistry). In addition to having 100 of the students wear Fitbits for the semester, he also enrolled about one-fourth of them in an intense fitness class in MIT’s Department of Athletics, Physical Education, and Recreation, with the help of assistant professors Carrie Moore and Matthew Breen, who created the class specifically for this study. The thinking was that there might be measurable differences in test performance between the two groups.</p> <p>There wasn’t. Those without the fitness classes performed just as well as those who did take them. “What we found at the end of the day was zero correlation with fitness, which I must say was disappointing since I believed, and still believe, there is a tremendous positive impact of exercise on cognitive performance,” Grossman says.</p> <p>He speculates that the intervals between the fitness program and the classes may have been too long to show an effect. But meanwhile, in the vast amount of data collected during the semester, some other correlations did become obvious. While the devices weren’t explicitly monitoring sleep, the Fitbit program’s proprietary algorithms did detect periods of sleep and changes in sleep quality, primarily based on lack of activity.</p> <p>These correlations were not at all subtle, Grossman says. There was essentially a straight-line relationship between the average amount of sleep a student got and their grades on the 11 quizzes, three midterms, and final exam, with the grades ranging from A’s to C’s. “There’s lots of scatter, it’s a noisy plot, but it’s a straight line,” he says. The fact that there was a correlation between sleep and performance wasn’t surprising, but the extent of it was, he says. Of course, this correlation can’t absolutely prove that sleep was the determining factor in the students’ performance, as opposed to some other influence that might have affected both sleep and grades. But the results are a strong indication, Grossman says, that sleep “really, really matters.”</p> <p>“Of course, we knew already that more sleep would be beneficial to classroom performance, from a number of previous studies that relied on subjective measures like self-report surveys,” Grossman says. “But in this study the benefits of sleep are correlated to performance in the context of a real-life college course, and driven by large amounts of objective data collection.”</p> <p>The study also revealed no improvement in scores for those who made sure to get a good night’s sleep right before a big test. According to the data, “the night before doesn’t matter,” Grossman says. “We've heard the phrase ‘Get a good night’s sleep, you've got a big day tomorrow.’ It turns out this does not correlate at all with test performance. Instead, it’s the sleep you get during the days when learning is happening that matter most.”</p> <p>Another surprising finding is that there appears to be a certain cutoff for bedtimes, such that going to bed later results in poorer performance, even if the total amount of sleep is the same. “When you go to bed matters,” Grossman says. “If you get a certain amount of sleep&nbsp; — let’s say seven hours — no matter when you get that sleep, as long as it’s before certain times, say you go to bed at 10, or at 12, or at 1, your performance is the same. But if you go to bed after 2, your performance starts to go down even if you get the same seven hours. So, quantity isn’t everything.”</p> <p>Quality of sleep also mattered, not just quantity. For example, those who got relatively consistent amounts of sleep each night did better than those who had greater variations from one night to the next, even if they ended up with the same average amount.</p> <p>This research also helped to provide an explanation for something that Grossman says he had noticed and wondered about for years, which is that on average, the women in his class have consistently gotten better grades than the men. Now, he has a possible answer: The data show that the differences in quantity and quality of sleep can fully account for the differences in grades. “If we correct for sleep, men and women do the same in class. So sleep could be the explanation for the gender difference in our class,” he says.</p> <p>More research will be needed to understand the reasons why women tend to have better sleep habits than men. “There are so many factors out there that it could be,” Grossman says. “I can envision a lot of exciting follow-on studies to try to understand this result more deeply.”</p> <p>“The results of this study are very gratifying to me as a sleep researcher, but are terrifying to me as a parent,” says Robert Stickgold, a professor of psychiatry and director of the Center for Sleep and Cognition at Harvard Medical School, who was not connected with this study. He adds, “The overall course grades for students averaging six and a half hours of sleep were down 50 percent from other students who averaged just one hour more sleep. Similarly, those who had just a half-hour more night-to-night variation in their total sleep time had grades that dropped 45 percent below others with less variation. This is huge!”</p> <p>Stickgold says “a full quarter of the variation in grades was explained by these sleep parameters (including bedtime). All students need to not only be aware of these results, but to understand their implication for success in college. I can’t help but believe the same is true for high school students.” But he adds one caution: “That said, correlation is not the same as causation. While I have no doubt that less and more variable sleep will hurt a student’s grades, it’s also possible that doing poorly in classes leads to less and more variable sleep, not the other way around, or that some third factor, such as ADHD, could independently lead to poorer grades and poorer sleep.”</p> <p>The team also included technical assistant Jakub Kaezmarzyk and Harvard Business School researcher Neha Dave. The study was supported by MIT’s Department of Materials Science and Engineering, the Lubin Fund, and the MIT Integrated Learning Initiative.</p> Even relatively small differences in the duration, timing, and consistency of students' sleep may have significant effects on course test results, a new MIT study shows. Research, DMSE, Brain and cognitive sciences, Health, School of Engineering, School of Science, Mental health, McGovern Institute, Students, Student life, education, Education, teaching, academics Two studies reveal benefits of mindfulness for middle school students Focusing awareness on the present moment can enhance academic performance and lower stress levels. Mon, 26 Aug 2019 14:00:00 -0400 Anne Trafton | MIT News Office <p>Two new studies from MIT suggest that mindfulness — the practice of focusing one’s awareness on the present moment — can enhance academic performance and mental health in middle schoolers. The researchers found that more mindfulness correlates with better academic performance, fewer suspensions from school, and less stress.</p> <p>“By definition, mindfulness is the ability to focus attention on the present moment, as opposed to being distracted by external things or internal thoughts. If you’re focused on the teacher in front of you, or the homework in front of you, that should be good for learning,” says John Gabrieli, the Grover M. Hermann Professor in Health Sciences and Technology, a professor of brain and cognitive sciences, and a member of MIT’s McGovern Institute for Brain Research.</p> <p>The researchers also showed, for the first time, that mindfulness training can alter brain activity in students. Sixth-graders who received mindfulness training not only reported feeling less stressed, but their brain scans revealed reduced activation of the amygdala, a brain region that processes fear and other emotions, when they viewed images of fearful faces.</p> <p>Together, the findings suggest that offering mindfulness training in schools could benefit many students, says Gabrieli, who is the senior author of both studies.&nbsp;</p> <p>“We think there is a reasonable possibility that mindfulness training would be beneficial for children as part of the daily curriculum in their classroom,” he says. “What’s also appealing about mindfulness is that there are pretty well-established ways of teaching it.”</p> <p><strong>In the moment</strong></p> <p>Both studies were performed at charter schools in Boston. In one of the papers, which appears today in the journal <em>Behavioral Neuroscience</em>, the MIT team studied about 100 sixth-graders. Half of the students received mindfulness training every day for eight weeks, while the other half took a coding class. The mindfulness curriculum, created by the nonprofit program <a href="">Calmer Choice</a>,&nbsp;was&nbsp;designed to encourage students to pay attention to their breath, and to focus on the present moment rather than thoughts of the past or the future.</p> <p>Students who received the mindfulness training reported that their stress levels went down after the training, while the students in the control group did not. Students in the mindfulness training group also reported fewer negative feelings, such as sadness or anger, after the training.</p> <p>About 40 of the students also participated in brain imaging studies before and after the training. The researchers measured activity in the amygdala as the students looked at pictures of faces expressing different emotions.</p> <p>At the beginning of the study, before any training, students who reported higher stress levels showed more amygdala activity when they saw fearful faces. This is consistent with previous research showing that the amygdala can be overactive in people who experience more stress, leading them to have stronger negative reactions to adverse events.</p> <p>“There’s a lot of evidence that an overly strong amygdala response to negative things is associated with high stress in early childhood and risk for depression,” Gabrieli says.</p> <p>After the mindfulness training, students showed a smaller amygdala response when they saw the fearful faces, consistent with their reports that they felt less stressed. This suggests that mindfulness training could potentially help prevent or mitigate mood disorders linked with higher stress levels, the researchers say.</p> <p>Richard Davidson, a professor of psychology and psychiatry at the University of Wisconsin, says that the findings suggest there could be great benefit to implementing mindfulness training in middle schools.</p> <p>“This is really one of the very first rigorous studies with children of that age to demonstrate behavioral and neural benefits of a simple mindfulness training,” says Davidson, who was not involved in the study.</p> <p><strong>Evaluating mindfulness</strong></p> <p>In the other paper, which appeared in the journal <em>Mind, Brain, and Education</em> in June, the researchers did not perform any mindfulness training but used a questionnaire to evaluate mindfulness in more than 2,000 students in grades 5-8. The questionnaire was based on the Mindfulness Attention Awareness Scale, which is often used in mindfulness studies on adults. Participants are asked to rate how strongly they agree with statements such as “I rush through activities without being really attentive to them.”</p> <p>The researchers compared the questionnaire results with students’ grades, their scores on statewide standardized tests, their attendance rates, and the number of times they had been suspended from school. Students who showed more mindfulness tended to have better grades and test scores, as well as fewer absences and suspensions.</p> <p>“People had not asked that question in any quantitative sense at all, as to whether a more mindful child is more likely to fare better in school,” Gabrieli says. “This is the first paper that says there is a relationship between the two.”</p> <p>The researchers now plan to do a full school-year study, with a larger group of students across many schools, to examine the longer-term effects of mindfulness training. Shorter programs like the two-month training used in the <em>Behavioral Neuroscience</em> study would most likely not have a lasting impact, Gabrieli says.</p> <p>“Mindfulness is like going to the gym. If you go for a month, that’s good, but if you stop going, the effects won’t last,” he says. “It’s a form of mental exercise that needs to be sustained.”</p> <p>The research was funded by the Walton Family Foundation, the Poitras Center for Psychiatric Disorders Research at the McGovern Institute for Brain Research, and the National Council of Science and Technology of Mexico. Camila Caballero ’13, now a graduate student at Yale University, is the lead author of the <em>Mind, Brain, and Education</em> study. Caballero and MIT postdoc Clemens Bauer are lead authors of the <em>Behavioral Neuroscience</em> study. Additional collaborators were from the Harvard Graduate School of Education, Transforming Education, Boston Collegiate Charter School, and Calmer Choice.</p> An MIT study suggests that mindfulness can improve mental health and academic performance in middle school students.Research, Learning, Behavior, Brain and cognitive sciences, McGovern Institute, School of Science, Neuroscience, Mental health Speeding up drug discovery for brain diseases Whitehead Institute team finds drugs that activate a key brain gene; initial tests in cells and mice show promise for rare, untreatable neurodevelopmental disorder. Wed, 31 Jul 2019 14:25:01 -0400 Nicole Davis <p>A research team led by Whitehead Institute scientists has identified 30 distinct chemical compounds — 20 of which are drugs undergoing clinical trial or have already been approved by the FDA — that boost the protein production activity of a critical gene in the brain and improve symptoms of Rett syndrome, a rare neurodevelopmental condition that often provokes autism-like behaviors in patients. The new study, conducted in human cells and mice, helps illuminate the biology of an important gene, called KCC2, which is implicated in a variety of brain diseases, including autism, epilepsy, schizophrenia, and depression. The researchers’ findings, published in the July 31 online issue of <em>Science Translational Medicine</em>, could help spur the development of new treatments for a host of devastating brain disorders.</p> <p>“There’s increasing evidence that KCC2 plays important roles in several different disorders of the brain, suggesting that it may act as a common driver of neurological dysfunction,” says senior author <a href="">Rudolf</a><a href=""> Jaenisch</a>, a founding member of Whitehead Institute and professor of biology at MIT. “These drugs we’ve identified may help speed up the development of much-needed treatments.”</p> <p>KCC2 works exclusively in the brain and spinal cord, carrying ions in and out of specialized cells known as neurons. This shuttling of electrically charged molecules helps maintain the cells’ electrochemical makeup, enabling neurons to fire when they need to and to remain idle when they don’t. If this delicate balance is upset, brain function and development go awry.</p> <p>Disruptions in KCC2 function have been linked to several human brain disorders, including Rett syndrome (RTT), a progressive and often debilitating disorder that typically emerges early in life in girls and can involve disordered movement, seizures, and communication difficulties. Currently, there is no effective treatment for RTT.</p> <p>Jaenisch and his colleagues, led by first author Xin Tang, devised a high-throughput screen assay to uncover drugs that increase KCC2 gene activity. Using CRISPR/Cas9 genome editing and stem cell technologies, they engineered human neurons to provide rapid readouts of the amount of KCC2 protein produced. The researchers created these so-called reporter cells from both healthy human neurons as well as RTT neurons that carry disease-causing mutations in the MECP2 gene. These reporter neurons were then fed into a drug-screening pipeline to find chemical compounds that can enhance KCC2 gene activity.</p> <p>Tang and his colleagues screened over 900 chemical compounds, focusing on those that have been FDA-approved for use in other conditions, such as cancer, or have undergone at least some level of clinical testing. “The beauty of this approach is that many of these drugs have been studied in the context of non-brain diseases, so the mechanisms of action are known,” says Tang. “Such molecular insights enable us to learn how the KCC2 gene is regulated in neurons, while also identifying compounds with potential therapeutic value.”</p> <p>The Whitehead Institute team identified a total of 30 drugs with KCC2-enhancing activity. These compounds, referred to as KEECs (short for KCC2 expression-enhancing compounds), work in a variety of ways. Some block a molecular pathway, called FLT3, which is found to be overactive in some forms of leukemia. Others inhibit the GSK3b pathway that has been implicated in several brain diseases. Another KEEC acts on SIRT1, which plays a key role in a variety of biological processes, including aging.</p> <p>In followup experiments, the researchers exposed RTT neurons and mouse models to KEEC treatment and found that some compounds can reverse certain defects associated with the disease, including abnormalities in neuronal signaling, breathing, and movement. These efforts were made possible by a collaboration with <a href="">Mriganka Sur’s</a> group at the Picower Institute for Learning and Memory, in which Keji Li and colleagues led the behavioral experiments in mice that were essential for revealing the drugs’ potency.</p> <p>“Our findings illustrate the power of an unbiased approach for discovering drugs that could significantly improve the treatment of neurological disease,” says Jaenisch. “And because we are starting with known drugs, the path to clinical translation is likely to be much shorter.”</p> <p>In addition to speeding up drug development for Rett syndrome, the researchers’ unique drug-screening strategy, which harnesses an engineered gene-specific reporter to unearth promising drugs, can also be applied to other important disease-related genes in the brain. “Many seemingly distinct brain diseases share common root causes of abnormal gene expression or disrupted signaling pathways,” says Tang. “We believe our method has broad applicability and could help catalyze therapeutic discovery for a wide range of neurological conditions.”</p> <p>Support for this work was provided by the National Institutes of Health, the Simons Foundation Autism Research Initiative, the Simons Center for the Social Brain at MIT, the Rett Syndrome Research Trust, the International Rett Syndrome Foundation, the Damon Runyon Cancer Foundation, and the National Cancer Institute.</p> Image: Steven Lee/Whitehead InstituteWhitehead Institute, Picower Institute, School of Science, Behavior, Biology, Brain and cognitive sciences, CRISPR, Development, Disease, Genetics, Mental health, National Institutes of Health (NIH), Pharmaceuticals, Research, Proteins, Drug development Uncovering the riches of traditional global medicine Researchers solve how the kava plant produces its pain-relieving and anti-anxiety molecules, demonstrate an extensible method to scale and optimize production. Tue, 23 Jul 2019 11:00:01 -0400 Greta Friar | Whitehead Institute <p>Kava (<em>Piper methysticum</em>) is a plant native to the Polynesian islands that people there have used in a calming drink of the same name in religious and cultural rituals for thousands of years. The tradition of cultivating kava and drinking it during important gatherings is a cultural cornerstone shared throughout much of Polynesia, although the specific customs — and the strains of kava — vary from island to island. Over the past few decades, kava has been gaining interest outside of the islands for its pain-relief and anti-anxiety properties as a potentially attractive alternative to drugs like opioids and benzodiazepines because kavalactones, the molecules of medicinal interest in kava, use slightly different mechanisms to affect the central nervous system and appear to be non-addictive. Kava bars have been springing up around the United States, kava supplements and teas lining the shelves at stores like Walmart, and sports figures in need of safe pain relief are touting its benefits.</p> <p>This growing usage suggests that there would be a sizeable market for kavalactone-based medical therapies, but there are roadblocks to development: for one, kava is hard to cultivate, especially outside of the tropics. Kava takes years to reach maturity and, as a domesticated species that no longer produces seeds, it can only be propagated using cuttings. This can make it difficult for researchers to get a large enough quantity of kavalactones for investigations or clinical trials.</p> <p>Now, research from Whitehead Institute member and MIT associate professor of biology <a href="">Jing-Ke Weng</a>&nbsp;and postdoc Tomáš&nbsp;Pluskal, <a href="" target="_blank">published online in&nbsp;<em>Nature Plants</em></a> July 22, describes a way to solve that problem, as well as to create kavalactone variants not found in nature that may be more effective or safer as therapeutics.</p> <div class="cms-placeholder-content-video"></div> <p>“We’re combining historical knowledge of this plant’s medicinal properties, established through centuries of traditional usage, with modern research tools in order to potentially develop new drugs,” Pluskal says.</p> <p>Weng’s lab has shown that if researchers figure out the genes behind a desirable natural molecule — in this case, kavalactones — they can clone those genes, insert them into species like yeast or bacteria that grow quickly and are easier to maintain in a variety of environments than a temperamental tropical plant, and then get these microbial bio-factories to mass produce the molecule. In order to achieve this, first Weng and Pluskal had to solve a complicated puzzle: How does kava produce kavalactones? There is no direct kavalactone gene; complex metabolites like kavalactones are created through a series of steps using intermediate molecules. Cells can combine these intermediates, snip out parts of them, and add bits onto them to create the final molecule — most of which is done with the help of enzymes, cells’ chemical reaction catalysts. So, in order to recreate kavalactone production, the researchers had to identify the complete pathway plants use to synthesize it, including the genes for all of the enzymes involved.</p> <p>The researchers could not use genetic sequencing or common gene editing tools to identify the enzymes because the kava genome is huge; it has 130 chromosomes compared to humans’ 46. Instead they turned to other methods, including sequencing the plant’s RNA to survey the genes expressed, to identify the biosynthetic pathway for kavalactones.</p> <p>“It’s like you have a lot of Lego pieces scattered on the floor,” Weng says, “and you have to find the ones that fit together to build a certain object.”</p> <p>Weng and Pluskal had a good starting point: They recognized that kavalactones had a similar structural backbone to chalcones, metabolites shared by all land plants. They hypothesized that one of the enzymes involved in producing kavalactones must be related to the one involved in producing chalcones, chalcone synthase (CHS). They looked for genes encoding similar enzymes and found two synthases that had evolved from an older CHS gene. These synthases, which they call&nbsp;<em>Pm</em>SPS1 and&nbsp;<em>Pm</em>SPS2, help to shape the basic scaffolding of kavalactones molecules.</p> <p>Then, with some trial and error, Pluskal found the genes encoding a number of the tailoring enzymes that modify and add to the molecules’ backbone to create a variety of specific kavalactones. In order to test that he had identified the right enzymes, Pluskal cloned the relevant genes and confirmed that the enzymes they encode produced the expected molecules. The team also identified key enzymes in the biosynthetic pathway of flavokavains, molecules in kava that are structurally related to kavalactones and have been shown in studies to have anti-cancer properties.</p> <p>Once the researchers had their kavalactone genes, they inserted them into bacteria and yeast to begin producing the molecules. This proof of concept for their microbial bio-factory model demonstrated that using microbes could provide a more efficient and scalable production vehicle for kavalactones. The model could also allow for the production of novel molecules engineered by combining kava genes with other genes so the microbes would produce modified kavalactones. This could allow researchers to optimize the molecules for efficiency and safety as therapeutics.</p> <p>“There’s a very urgent need for therapies to treat mental disorders, and for safer pain relief options,” Weng says. “Our model eliminates several of the bottlenecks in drug development from plants by increasing access to natural medicinal molecules and allowing for the creation of new-to-nature molecules.”</p> <p>Kava is only one of many plants around the world containing unique molecules that could be of great medicinal value. Weng and Pluskal hope that their model — combining the use of drug discovery from plants used in traditional medicine, genomics, synthetic biology, and microbial mass production — will be used to better harness the great diversity of plant chemistry around the world in order to help patients in need.</p> <p>This work was supported by grants from the Smith Family Foundation, Edward N. and Della L. Thome Memorial Foundation, the Family Larsson-Rosenquist Foundation, and the National Science Foundation. Tomáš&nbsp;Pluskal is a Simons Foundation Fellow of the Helen Hay Whitney Foundation. Jing-Ke Weng is supported by the Beckman Young Investigator Program, Pew Scholars Program in the Biomedical Sciences, and the Searle Scholars Program.</p> Kava plantsImage: Randy TravisWhitehead Institute, Biology, School of Science, Evolution, Genetics, Mental health, National Science Foundation (NSF), Research, Health, Plants A behavioral economist explores poverty and development Doctoral student Pierre-Luc Vautrey investigates how incorrect beliefs shape economic decision-making. Thu, 30 May 2019 23:59:59 -0400 Daysia Tolentino | MIT News correspondent <p>On a sunny May day, Pierre-Luc Vautrey sits in 1369 Coffeehouse in Cambridge, talking enthusiastically about his work — five research projects to be exact. He speaks quickly, and the coffee gives him an extra boost. He has a lot of ground to cover, and at times he has to re-explain certain areas of his research. Luckily, he’s patient and wants to ensure that people understand his work.</p> <p>Vautrey is a third-year doctoral student in MIT’s Department of Economics. While he spent his undergraduate years studying applied math and physics in his home country of France, he was always drawn to the humanities and social sciences.</p> <p>“I still had this itch to go back to social science at some point. It just seemed like a really nice way to bridge science and quantitative approach with social science and humans in general. That’s how I got into economics,” he says.</p> <p>As a behavioral economist, Vautrey aims to extend our understanding of economic decisions using psychology. This approach questions traditional assumptions, ever so slightly, in order to make outcomes more realistic regarding human behavior.</p> <p>“Traditional economics has been modeling everything as rational. We assume that the agent learns like a statistician and makes rational decisions. And in the last 20 or 30 years, this model has shown its limits. It’s still very popular for many things, but for others we can do a lot better at explaining people’s behavior and why certain social systems work and some systems don’t work, by using psychology [to understand] how people actually think and make decisions,” he says.</p> <p>The unifying theme throughout his current work is understanding how people form beliefs and expectations.</p> <p>“You can use psychology to take a small departure, that’s the key, from rational behavior, which is having correct expectations and basing decisions on these expectations,” he says. “You still make decisions based on expectations, but you have incorrect beliefs for various psychological reasons. That’s kind of the key psychological, irrational approach that I’m interested in. What is the role of beliefs, how do we best measure them, and in various contexts can we explain why people have irrational beliefs? Can we predict incorrect beliefs of people based on context? Does it help us explain sometimes puzzling decisions?”</p> <p>One of the projects Vautrey is working on, along with Professor Frank Schilbach from the Department of Economics, is how mental health affects beliefs and economic decision making. They began conducting research in India among people with depression in low-income communities with no access to mental health services. They want to evaluate whether depression affects a person’s self-confidence and, consequently, their ability to participate in their economy. They are working with Sangath, an NGO providing low-cost psychotherapy to the study’s participants, to measure the effects of psychotherapy on not only mental health, but also economic decisions. Vautrey began working on the project the fall of 2017, during its early brainstorming stages, and has visited India twice since the field work began.</p> <p>“You have to go there to see how operations are going, see the actual participants, because it's really hard to get everything from calls. You have people implementing the project, but usually the people who have designed the questions or are initiating the idea are not full-time in the field because they are professors so they have to teach,” Vautrey explains.</p> <p>Field visits are also important in order to see whether the research objective and the information gathered are consistent with each other.</p> <p>“You have to design questions that are qualitative, that are verbal, but are going to generate numerical outcomes that you can analyze. It’s a back-and-forth between sociological-style research, when you talk to people and try to understand what they think, and how you go from there to build quantitative measures. You have to be on the field; you have to be face-to-face to understand whether your numeric outcome is consistent with what you want it to mean,” he says.</p> <p>Traveling is important to executing research, and Vautrey enjoys that aspect of the job. He has loved traveling since his youth and has taken as many opportunities as he could to do so.</p> <p>Beyond the project in India, Vautrey is working on a few other projects, two more in progress and two in their preliminary stages. In the former two, he is studying how people choose biased information sources and how people are influenced by news repetition. In another project with MIT economics doctoral student Charlie Rafkin, Vautrey is investigating unsafe driving patterns in developing countries and how drivers’ motivated reasoning about road safety leads to more risk taking that could be easily avoided by correcting drivers’ beliefs and overconfidence.</p> <p>Vautrey’s newest endeavor is taking him to Colombia with Pedro Bessone Tepedino, another MIT economics doctoral student, for preliminary research for a new project centered around crime and teenage involvement in gangs.</p> <p>While he enjoys doing all of his research, Vautrey finds that the work can make life a bit unstructured at times. He grounds himself by staying active with activities such as biking and rock climbing.</p> <p>In the future, Vautrey hopes to work in academia. As a professor, he isn’t sure what specifically he wants to specialize in quite yet, but he says that it will likely have something to do with using psychology and economics to answer specific questions linked to poverty and development. He found a love for teaching through his work as a teaching assistant at MIT this past semester. It requires patience, but Vautrey finds the work rewarding.</p> <p>“It’s a really nice feeling when you manage to get someone to understand something you said. When you have a class, it’s almost impossible to get everyone to understand everything you want,” he says, adding, “To me, if I get half of the class to understand something and to learn something they really value, I’m already happy.”</p> Pierre-Luc VautreyImages: Jake BelcherStudents, Profile, Graduate, postdoctoral, Behavioral economics, Social sciences, India, Mental health, Economics, School of Humanities Arts and Social Sciences MIT students organize FAIL! ― an initiative to destigmatize failure and build resilience FAIL! brings together prominent scholars to share the challenges and missteps that led them to where they are today. Tue, 28 May 2019 17:10:02 -0400 Kollin Wasserlein | MindHandHeart <p>Many members of the science and technology community are inspired by the startup mantra “fail fast and fail often.” They aim to remain calm and resolute when their experiments go awry, startups dissolve, and problem sets occasionally go unfinished.</p> <p>When it comes to the lived experience of navigating setbacks, however, many end up failing at failing. They internalize the experience and treat failure as a reflection of their abilities, rather than an unavoidable part of life, necessary for personal growth.</p> <p>This very human tendency was the inspiration for <a href="" target="_blank">FAIL!</a>, an event series committed to destigmatizing failure. MIT graduate and visiting students Francesco Benedetti, Chengzhao Zhang, Giannandrea Inchingolo, David Rolnick, Tanja Mueller, Simone Bruno, Luca Alfeo, Stefano Deluca, and Sandra Rothenbuecher founded FAIL! in spring 2018. To date, there have been three FAIL! conferences held at MIT, drawing sold-out crowds of 350-400 people.&nbsp;</p> <p>At each conference, prominent scholars from MIT and Harvard University share 10-minute stories of personal, academic, and professional failures, followed by a Q&amp;A session with the audience. By learning of the challenges and missteps of highly successful people, the organizers hope to reduce the discouragement and isolation attendees may feel when confronted with their own failures.</p> <p>Fail! was funded by the <a href="">MindHandHeart Innovation Fund</a>, a grant program supporting projects that advance mental health, community, diversity, and inclusion at MIT. The series was also supported by the Division of Student Life, MIT Sandbox, MIT VISTA, MIT Graduate Student Council, and MITell.&nbsp;</p> <p><strong>What it means to fail</strong></p> <p>MIT professor of computer science Daniel Jackson, who recently published <a href="" target="_blank">a book</a> on resilience at MIT, opened this April’s <a href=";" target="_blank">FAIL! Conference</a> by reflecting on the different types of failure. “There’s what I call ‘little-f failure’ and ‘big-F failure,’” he said. “Little-f failure is when you do something and you screw it up … Big-F failure is when your whole life comes to nothing.”</p> <p>Big-F failures, he noted, are relatively rare, although fear of them can lead people to avoid taking worthwhile risks&nbsp;and limit their ability to lead full, meaningful lives. “Talking about fear and failure is the key to changing ourselves and the culture in which we live,” said Jackson, emphasizing the importance of events like FAIL! that create spaces to explore these topics.</p> <p>Professor of humanities, sociology, and anthropology <a href="">Susan Silbey</a>, who was recently awarded MIT’s highest faculty honor, the <a href="">Killian Award</a>, spoke after Jackson. Although Silbey has had a celebrated career with seemingly few little-f failures, she struggled to find direction and mentorship as a graduate student.</p> <p>“I started my PhD two months after I graduated college,” said Silbey. “In 1962 there weren’t very many women who joined PhD programs at the University of Chicago. That was quite extraordinary in that year. What was more extraordinary is that I did not graduate until 1978. Sixteen years. That is not the career of a star: That is a failure.” Silbey credited her eventual success to her love of learning and research, regardless of the topic she was studying.</p> <p>Harvard Medical School professor of genetics <a href="" target="_blank">George Church</a> spoke at the FAIL! Conference held in November 2018. Those who know him as a founding father of synthetic biology would be surprised to learn that he spent six months homeless and failed out of graduate school at Duke University&nbsp;prior to being accepted to a PhD program at Harvard University, where he later graduated.</p> <p>Church encouraged the audience to not only embrace their own failures, but to learn from the failures of others. “I’ve learned as much from my negative role models as I did from my positive ones,” he said. “They had trouble, and you’re trying to learn from their trouble without personally experiencing it.”</p> <p><strong>The success of F</strong><strong>AIL</strong><strong>!</strong></p> <p>A survey of the first two FAIL! conferences showed a satisfaction rate above 90 percent. “We were able to start a community,” says Francesco Benedetti, one of the FAIL! organizers and a postdoc in chemical engineering at MIT. “People started conversations about failure and made friends because of the experiences they had in common.”</p> <p>In February, FAIL! was awarded first prize in the “Live” category of the <a href="" target="_blank">BetterMIT Innovation Challenge</a> for successfully “expanding study spaces and student life.” The challenge was organized by the Undergraduate Association Committee on Innovation and Technology.</p> <p>This spring, FAIL! organizers piloted a workshop series on the topic of failure to complement their conferences. Ten graduate students met on a monthly basis with a FAIL! faculty presenter to discuss times they had failed and what they had learned from their experiences.</p> <p>“These workshops help bridge the gap between inspiring speakers and students who would like to change their relationship with failure,” says Kanika Gakhar, a first-year graduate student and lead organizer of the FAIL! workshop. “By sharing personal experiences and coping strategies, students have an opportunity to feel accepted and learn from each other.”</p> <p>The FAIL! initiative is also expanding beyond MIT. In March, <a href="" target="_blank">a FAIL! Conference was held</a> at the International Institute of Information Technology in Hyderabad, India and drew a crowd of 350 people.</p> <p><strong>Starting over</strong></p> <p>When confronted with failure, it can be hard to know how to start again. Among the FAIL! Conference speakers, and those who organized the series, there was no one path forward. The only thing that was true for all of them was that they did start again.</p> <p>FAIL! organizer Chengzhao Zhang, who is pursuing a PhD in mathematics at MIT, reflects: “I’ve failed at so many things; I don’t know where to begin. When I was an undergrad, I scored 35/120 on a partial differential equations midterm. I had never scored so low on a test. But afterwards, I still stuck with the field because of the beauty of math and its ability to model physical and engineering phenomena. Now I am able to do PhD-level research at one of the best institutes in the world.”&nbsp;</p> <p>“It’s scary to fail,” Zhang acknowledges. “You’ll doubt your ability, your worthiness, and your intelligence in confronting it. But failure is no reason to stop trying. Reflect upon the mistakes you made and learn a lesson from them.”</p> <p>“FAIL! is about being human,” adds Benedetti. “We all need inspiring and realistic role models. By sharing the challenges and vulnerabilities that many people try to hide, our brave speakers are helping to create an environment where students feel comfortable being themselves and expressing their creativity. We believe that FAIL! is providing a model of thoughtfulness and humility, which will inspire attendees to be better leaders.”</p> <p>Other prominent speakers at the MIT FAIL! Conferences include: <a href=";t=136s" target="_blank">Allan Adams</a>, physicist and principal investigator&nbsp;of the Future Ocean Lab at MIT; <a href=";t=7s" target="_blank">Amanda Bosh</a>, astronomer and planetary scientist at MIT; <a href=";t=291s" target="_blank">Amy Edmonson</a>, professor of leadership and management at the Harvard Business School; <a href=";t=98s" target="_blank">Arthur Bahr</a>, associate professor of literature at MIT; <a href=";t=716s" target="_blank">Deborah Blum</a>, Pulitzer Prize-winning author and director of the Knight Science Journalism Program at MIT; <a href=";t=3s" target="_blank">Mariana Castells</a>, professor of medicine at Harvard Medical School; <a href=";t=3s" target="_blank">Mira Wilczek</a>, president and CEO of Cogo Labs and a senior partner at Link Ventures; <a href="" target="_blank">Muriel Medard</a>, professor of electrical engineering at MIT; <a href=";t=48s" target="_blank">Nuno Loureiro</a>, associate professor of physics at MIT; and <a href=";" target="_blank">Regina Bateson</a>, assistant professor of political science at MIT. <a href=";t=94s" target="_blank">Kirsty Bennett</a>, manager of <a href="" target="_blank">MITell</a>, an on-campus storytelling initiative, hosted the conferences and <a href=";t=256s" target="_blank">John Werner</a>, curator of TEDxBeaconStreet, moderated the Q&amp;A session at the fall 2018 conference.</p> <p>The next FAIL! Conference will take place in fall 2019.</p> April FAIL! Conference speakers: (left to right) Kirsty Bennett, manager of MITell; Susan Silbey, MIT professor of humanities, sociology, and anthropology; Regina Bateson, MIT assistant professor of political science; Amanda Bosh, MIT astronomer and planetary scientist; Amy Edmonson, Harvard Business School professor of leadership and management; and Chengzhao Zhang, MIT graduate student and co-founder of the FAIL! initiative.Photo: Maisie O'BrienMindHandHeart, Community, Mental health, Wellbeing, Student life, Special events and guest speakers, Faculty, Staff, Students Wireless movement-tracking system could collect health and behavioral data In some cases, radio frequency signals may be more useful for caregivers than cameras or other data-collection methods. Wed, 08 May 2019 00:00:00 -0400 Rob Matheson | MIT News Office <p>We live in a world of wireless signals flowing around us and bouncing off our bodies. MIT researchers are now leveraging those signal reflections to provide scientists and caregivers with valuable insights into people’s behavior and health.</p> <p>The system, called Marko, transmits a low-power radio-frequency (RF) signal into an environment. The signal will return to the system with certain changes if it has bounced off a moving human. Novel algorithms then analyze those changed reflections and associate them with specific individuals.</p> <p>The system then traces each individual’s movement around a digital floor plan. Matching these movement patterns with other data can provide insights about how people interact with each other and the environment.</p> <p>In a paper being presented at the Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems this week, the researchers describe the system and its real-world use in six locations: two assisted living facilities, three apartments inhabited by couples, and one townhouse with four residents. The case studies demonstrated the system’s ability to distinguish individuals based solely on wireless signals — and revealed some useful behavioral patterns.</p> <div class="cms-placeholder-content-video"></div> <p>In one assisted living facility, with permission from the patient’s family and caregivers, the researchers monitored a patient with dementia who would often become agitated for unknown reasons. Over a month, they measured the patient’s increased pacing between areas of their unit —&nbsp;a known sign of agitation. By matching increased pacing with the visitor log, they determined the patient was agitated more during the days following family visits. This shows Marko can provide a new, passive way to track functional health profiles of patients at home, the researchers say.</p> <p>“These are interesting bits we discovered through data,” says first author Chen-Yu Hsu, a PhD student in the Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory (CSAIL). “We live in a sea of wireless signals, and the way we move and walk around changes these reflections. We developed the system that listens to those reflections … to better understand people’s behavior and health.”</p> <p>The research is led by Dina Katabi, the Andrew and Erna Viterbi Professor of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science and director of the MIT Center for Wireless Networks and Mobile Computing (Wireless@MIT). Joining Katabi and Hsu on the paper are CSAIL graduate students Mingmin Zhao and Guang-He Lee and alumnus Rumen Hristov SM ’16.</p> <p><strong>Predicting “tracklets” and identities</strong></p> <p>When deployed in a home, Marko shoots out an RF signal. When the signal rebounds, it creates a type of heat map cut into vertical and horizontal “frames,” which indicates where people are in a three-dimensional space. People appear as bright blobs on the map. Vertical frames capture the person’s height and build, while horizontal frames determine their general location. As individuals walk, the system analyzes the RF frames — about 30 per second — to generate short trajectories, called tracklets.</p> <p>A convolutional neural network — a machine-learning model commonly used for image processing — uses those tracklets to separate reflections by certain individuals. For each individual it senses, the system creates two “filtering masks,” which are small circles around the individual. These masks basically filter out all signals outside the circle, which locks in the individual’s trajectory and height as they move. Combining all this information — height, build, and movement — the network associates specific RF reflections with specific individuals.</p> <p>But to tag identities to those anonymous blobs, the system must first be “trained.” For a few days, individuals wear low-powered accelerometer sensors, which can be used to label the reflected radio signals with their respective identities. When deployed in training, Marko first generates users’ tracklets, as it does in practice. Then, an algorithm correlates certain acceleration features with motion features. When users walk, for instance, the acceleration oscillates with steps, but becomes a flat line when they stop. The algorithm finds the best match between the acceleration data and tracklet, and labels that tracklet with the user’s identity. In doing so, Marko learns which reflected signals correlate to specific identities.</p> <p>The sensors never have to be charged, and, after training, the individuals don’t need to wear them again. In home deployments, Marko was able to tag the identities of individuals in new homes with between 85 and 95 percent accuracy.</p> <p><strong>Striking a good (data-collection) balance</strong></p> <p>The researchers hope health care facilities will use Marko to passively monitor, say, how patients interact with family and caregivers, and whether patients receive medications on time. In an assisted living facility, for instance, the researchers noted specific times a nurse would walk to a medicine cabinet in a patient’s room and then to the patient’s bed. That indicated that the nurse had, at those specific times, administered the patient’s medication.</p> <p>The system may also replace questionnaires and diaries currently used by psychologists or behavioral scientists to capture data on their study subjects’ family dynamics, daily schedules, or sleeping patterns, among other behaviors. Those traditional recording methods can be inaccurate, contain bias, and aren’t well-suited for long-term studies, where people may have to recall what they did days or weeks ago. Some researchers have started equipping people with wearable sensors to monitor movement and biometrics. But elderly patients, especially, often forget to wear or charge them. “The motivation here is to design better tools for researchers,” Hsu says.</p> <p>Why not just install cameras? For starters, this would require someone watching and manually recording all necessary information. Marko, on the other hand, automatically tags behavioral patterns —&nbsp;such as motion, sleep, and interaction — to specific areas, days, and times.</p> <p>Also, video is just more invasive, Hsu adds: “Most people aren’t that comfortable with being filmed all the time, especially in their own home. Using radio signals to do all this work strikes a good balance between getting some level of helpful information, but not making people feel uncomfortable.”</p> <p>Katabi and her students also plan to combine Marko with their prior work on inferring breathing and heart rate from the surrounding radio signals. Marko will then be used to associate those biometrics with the corresponding individuals. It could also track people’s walking speeds, which is a good indicator of functional health in elderly patients.</p> <p>“The potential here is immense,” says Cecilia Mascolo, a professor of mobile systems in the Department of Computer Science and Technology at Cambridge University. “With respect to imaging through cameras, it offers a less data-rich and more targeted model of collecting information, which is very welcome from the user privacy perspective. The data collected, however, is still very rich, and the paper evaluation shows accuracy which can enable a number of very useful applications, for example in elderly care, medical adherence monitoring, or even hospital care.”</p> <p>“Yet, as a community, we need to aware of the privacy risks that this type of technology bring,” Mascolo adds. Certain computation techniques, she says, should be considered to ensure the data remains private.</p> MIT researchers have developed a system, called Marko, that leverages radio-frequency (RF) signal reflections off human bodies to wirelessly monitor people’s movement inside their homes to provide insight for behavioral research or medical care.Image: Christine Daniloff, MITResearch, Computer science and technology, Algorithms, Data, Health care, Machine learning, Wireless, Behavior, Mental health, Health sciences and technology, Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory (CSAIL), Electrical Engineering & Computer Science (eecs), School of Engineering Spreading kindness for four years and counting MIT community celebrates Random Acts of Kindness Week by participating in lively events, connecting with campus resources, and practicing generosity. Wed, 24 Apr 2019 15:10:00 -0400 Sudhi Oberoi | MindHandHeart <p>Kindness can be contagious, and Random Acts of Kindness (RAK) Week has proven it year after year.</p> <p>During the second week of March, the MIT community celebrated <a href="">RAK Week</a> through a series of loosely-planned events and small, spontaneous acts of generosity known as “RAK hacks.” From a “kindness crawl” to a rainbow-colored ball pit to a yoga and dance party, the week was full of fun activities, giveaways, surprises, and intentional acts of kindness.</p> <p>RAK Week began four years ago when Bettina Arkhurst and Cory Johnson, then sophomores, applied to the <a href="">MindHandHeart Innovation Fund</a> after a particularly stressful spring semester.</p> <p>“We would always say that MIT isn't a place that a person is meant to go through&nbsp;alone and RAK Week is&nbsp;meant to get people to connect (or re-connect) with each other,” says Bettina, who is now a graduate student at Georgia Tech. Arkhurst and Johnson <a href="">envisioned an event series</a> that fostered a caring atmosphere across campus, which aligned with MindHandHeart’s mission and goals. MindHandHeart awarded them funding to pilot the week, which has since grown into an annual, Institute-wide event.</p> <p>This year, academic departments, support offices, residences, student groups, and individual community members participated in the week. Keeping up its tradition of celebrating RAK Week with enthusiasm, the <a href="">Department of Chemistry</a> organized a series of RAK events and volunteers handed out thank you balloons, shoutouts, and candygrams to members of their community.</p> <p>“RAK Week is one of our favorite annual events, and it’s always so encouraging and uplifting to see all of the thoughtful things our staff, faculty, students, and postdocs do for one another to facilitate even more kindness than usual in the department and beyond,” says department head Timothy Jamison.</p> <p>MIT Medical also hosted several activities during the week, including staff passing&nbsp;out daffodils to visiting patients.&nbsp;The <a href="">Spouses and Partners Connect</a>, a program associated with MIT Medical to support personal, social, and professional growth of spouses and partners of MIT community, organized a kindness crawl — kids and adults walked around campus, spreading cheer and kindness while handing out flowers and candies. MIT Medical Executive Director and Medical Director Cecilia Stuopis sent out handwritten thank you cards to every MIT Medical staff member and organized a surprise musical performance by Keytar Bear, one of Boston’s most famous buskers. Passersby grooved to Keytar Bear’s music and took selfies, which was popular on social media.</p> <p>“From flowers to live music, RAK Week serves as a wonderful and fun opportunity for us to show our patients that we truly care for them,” Stuopis reflected. “At the same time, we made sure to thank our staff, who work so hard, every day, to keep the MIT community healthy.”</p> <p>All week long,&nbsp;<a href="">17 support offices</a> tabled at Lobby 10 with goodies and informational material. The MIT Libraries also hosted their <a href="" target="_blank">annual letter-writing event</a> in Lobby 10, and provided participants with a variety of thank you cards, pens, markers, and colorful stationery. The following week, MIT Libraries sent 424 letters from the event to 42 countries across the globe.</p> <p>Chancellor Cynthia Barnhart and Vice Chancellor Ian Waitz also hosted a <a href=";album_id=789521508084431">study break in the UA Compton Lounge</a>&nbsp;with cookies and cupcakes.</p> <p>“It’s been wonderful to see RAK Week grow into a campus-wide celebration over the years,”&nbsp;Barnhart commented. “I think the participation across departments, residence halls, support offices, student groups —&nbsp;the list goes on and on —&nbsp;says a lot about the value we place on treating one another with kindness and care. We really are a community who wants to create connections and to promote wellbeing.”</p> <p>MindHandHeart partnered with the <a href="">SPXCE Intercultural Center</a> to host an open mic night for students to share stories, perform spoken word poetry and musical acts, and connect with one another in a supportive environment. The open mic was also organized by <a href=";album_id=789530501416865">Good Karma</a>, a student-led kindness initiative sponsored by the MindHandHeart Innovation Fund. RAK Week concluded with an early morning yoga and dance party in the Media Lab.</p> <p>Random Acts of Kindness Week has grown beyond spreading kindness to&nbsp;become a means to help community members connect with and support one another, and showcase MIT’s many support resources. MindHandHeart’s faculty, students, and staff say they look forward to what creative projects will come out of next year’s celebration.</p> <p>Random Acts of Kindness Week is co-sponsored by MIT Medical and the Office of the Chancellor.</p> Members of MIT Spouses and Partners Connect spread cheer during their RAK Week Kindness Crawl. Photo: Maisie O'BrienMindHandHeart, Graduate, postdoctoral, Chancellor, MIT Medical, Community, Students, MIT Libraries, Mental health, Special events and guest speakers, Student life, Vice Chancellor, Wellbeing Buddhist nun Sister Dang Nghiem invites MIT community to practice mindfulness “Look up from your computer. And see the blue sky that brings you joy.” Fri, 15 Mar 2019 12:30:01 -0400 Lisa Hickler | Global Studies and Languages <p>Dharma teacher Sister Dang Nghiem challenged her listeners to “Look up from your computer. And see the blue sky that brings you joy.” A Buddhist nun in the tradition of Thich Nhat Hanh, Sister Dang Nghiem spoke on the topic of “Mindfulness as Medicine” at MIT on March 7 as part of the T.T. and W.F. Chao Distinguished Buddhist Lecture Series sponsored by MIT Global Studies and Languages.</p> <p>The brown-robed sister, smiling and speaking barely above a whisper, began by leading the attentive audience of over 200 people in a short seated meditation. She explained she would not be presenting a lecture as such: “It’s more of a heart-to-heart transmission.” Three sounds of a bell were struck by Sister Truc Nghiem, known as “Sister Bamboo.” Both sisters, who reside at the Deer Park Monastery in California, were invited to MIT for two days of activities, organized in conjunction with MIT’s Program in Women’s and Gender Studies and the Addir Interfaith Fellows Program. The bell was loaned to event organizers by Temple Vietnam, a local Buddhist temple.</p> <p>Sister Dang Nghiem was born in 1968 in Vietnam during the Tet Offensive, the daughter of a Vietnamese mother and an American soldier. She lost her mother at the age of 12 and immigrated to the United States at the age of 17 with her brother. Living in various foster homes, she learned English and went on to earn a medical degree. After suffering further tragedy and loss, she quit her practice as a doctor to travel to the Plum Village monastery in France where she was ordained a nun in 2000. She is the author of two books: "Healing: A Woman’s Journey from Doctor to Nun" (2010) and "Mindfulness as Medicine: A Story of Healing and Spirit<em>" </em>(2015).</p> <p>A central theme of her talk was the role of meditation and mindful breathing as an antidote to the stresses, pain, and traumas of life that can produce physical and mental illnesses, among other difficulties. She discussed her own history with depression, headaches, and neuro-Lyme disease, as well as her experience as a survivor of sexual abuse.</p> <p>“We are very privileged people, and yet in so many ways we don’t have control over our own life. As doctors we are pushed to see 20, 30, 40 patients a day. As scientists you’re forced, pushed to finish one project after another.” Some of the stresses are also produced from within ourselves. She said, “We are very hard on ourselves. You got a degree. It’s not good enough. I have to get another degree. You finished a project? Oh no. I have a second project. You just don’t take the time to acknowledge what you have done, how hard you have worked, how far you have gone.”</p> <p>By using meditation and mindful breathing, she said, the mind and body can rest and relax. “You don’t have to become monks and nuns to practice mindfulness, or to practice meditation. You can practice wherever you are.”</p> <p>She spoke at length about one of the Buddhist principles: “interbeing” — that is, the interconnectedness of life, and the interpenetration of apparent separate phenomena. She said, “It helps us not to feel so isolated when we are in a classroom, in a lab, when we are so engrossed in our project, surrounded by concrete. Sometimes we feel so cut off from life. We’re not aware of what’s going on and can be so much in despair and desperation, because of deadlines, because of pressure. But if we just remember about interbeing&nbsp;— how our happiness and suffering affect not just one person, not just our loved ones, our family members, but the whole society. The ripple effect. So we come back to our breath, to our body, to smile, to take good care of ourselves, because the one contains the all. Taking good care of ourselves is taking good care of our family, of our society. That is love.”</p> <p>One aspect of “interbeing” is understanding our interconnection with people across disparate backgrounds. She reminded the MIT community, “We are a very privileged population. For every student or professor there must be hundreds of thousands of people who will never attain this kind of privilege, education, status in society."</p> <p>She addressed the concern that happiness and contentment might lead to complacency and under-achievement. She said, “People become more creative when our minds are spacious and calm. We see possibilities. We can be more spontaneous. As scientists we can become more like technicians. Because we keep repeating the patterns. We don’t see new ways to do things. New angles to the same problem. If you take those moments to take care of your body and mind. To just put it aside. Trust your consciousness. Our consciousness has many different levels. We usually use just the superficial levels. But deep down inside is the well, it’s like the ocean, that is unlimited. And when we can let that deep store consciousness to be at work we become very creative.”</p> <p>The evening was emceed by Professor Emma J. Teng, the T.T. and Wei Fong Chao Professor of Asian Civilizations at MIT and head of Global Studies and Languages. The sister was introduced by Professor Elizabeth A. Wood, professor of history and interim director of the Women's and Gender Studies Program.</p> <p>During the discussion period, a student asked why she should do her homework if meditation is what makes her feel good. The sister encouraged the student to use meditation or mindful breathing to help her study. “You still do what you need to do, and yet it comes from a different well. And it’s inspiring. It’s nourishing you as you do it.”</p> <p>She challenged those in the audience to step away from our computers and mobile phones. “We say we have no time, but every second we get, we get out that electronic gadget and start pressing the buttons. We don’t have enough love for ourselves. We consume constantly. We give no chance for the mind to rest, for the engine to cool off. Put them aside, my dear. And simply breathe and smile. Look at the beauty of nature. Look at the face of your loved one. Your child is growing up. Your loved one is growing away, apart from you. Connect.”</p> <p>The sister joked that an alternate meaning for the acronym “MIT” might be “Mindfulness in Technology.”</p> <p>After the lecture both Sister Dang Nghiem and Sister Bamboo met with members of the MIT Vietnamese Students Association.</p> <p>The following day, more than 40 MIT students, faculty, and staff from religious, ethics, athletics, and wellness organizations attended an “eating meditation.” Event organizer Olga Opojevici said the event included representatives from different groups on campus that provide programming in mindfulness. “This gave everyone a chance talk to each other about what resources already exist, and what could be created, to promote mindfulness practices on campus. The visit of Sister Dang Nghiem and Sister Bamboo was a true catalyst for this.”</p> <p>Earlier in the morning, about 35 people also attended a walking meditation in the Zesiger Sports and Fitness Center, led by Sister Bamboo.</p> <p>A video of the talk is available on the website of the <a href="" target="_blank">T.T. and W.F. Chao Distinguished Buddhist Lecture Series</a>.</p> Buddhist Sister Dang Nghiem addresses an audience at MIT. “You don’t have to become monks and nuns to practice mindfulness, or to practice meditation," she said.Global Studies and Languages, Women's and Gender Studies, School of Humanities Arts and Social Sciences, Religion, Health, Mental health, Special events and guest speakers In China, a link between happiness and air quality Moods expressed on social media tend to decline when air pollution gets worse, study finds. Mon, 21 Jan 2019 11:00:00 -0500 Helen Knight | MIT News correspondent <p>For many years, China has been struggling to tackle high pollution levels that are crippling its major cities. Indeed, a recent study by researchers at Chinese Hong Kong University has found that air pollution in the country causes an average of 1.1 million premature deaths each year and costs its economy $38 billion.</p> <p>Now researchers at MIT have discovered that air pollution in China’s cities may be contributing to low levels of happiness amongst the country’s urban population.</p> <p>In a paper published today in the journal <em>Nature Human Behaviour</em>, a research team led by Siqi Zheng, the Samuel Tak Lee Associate Professor in MIT’s Department of Urban Studies and Planning and Center for Real Estate, and the Faculty Director of MIT China Future City Lab, reveals that higher levels of pollution are associated with a decrease in people’s happiness levels.</p> <p>The paper also includes co-first author Jianghao Wang of the Chinese Academy of Sciences, Matthew Kahn of the University of Southern California, Cong Sun of the Shanghai University of Finance and Economics, and Xiaonan Zhang of Tsinghua University in Beijing.</p> <p>Despite an annual economic growth rate of 8 percent, satisfaction levels amongst China’s urban population have not risen as much as would be expected.</p> <p>Alongside inadequate public services, soaring house prices, and concerns over food safety, air pollution — caused by the country’s industrialization, coal burning, and increasing use of cars — has had a significant impact on quality of life in urban areas.</p> <p>Research has previously shown that air pollution is damaging to health, cognitive performance, labor productivity, and educational outcomes. But air pollution also has a broader impact on people’s social lives and behavior, according to Zheng.</p> <p>To avoid high levels of air pollution, for example, people may move to cleaner cities or green buildings, buy protective equipment such as face masks and air purifiers, and spend less time outdoors.</p> <p>“Pollution also has an emotional cost,” Zheng says. “People are unhappy, and that means they may make irrational decisions.”</p> <p>On polluted days, people have been shown to be more likely to engage in impulsive and risky behavior that they may later regret, possibly as a result of short-term depression and anxiety, according to Zheng.</p> <p>“So we wanted to explore a broader range of effects of air pollution on people’s daily lives in highly polluted Chinese cities,” she says.</p> <p>To this end, the researchers used real-time data from social media to track how changing daily pollution levels impact people’s happiness in 144 Chinese cities.</p> <p>In the past, happiness levels have typically been measured using questionnaires. However, such surveys provide only a single snapshot; people’s responses tend to reflect their overall feeling of well-being, rather than their happiness on particular days.</p> <p>“Social media gives a real-time measure of people’s happiness levels and also provides a huge amount of data, across a lot of different cities,” Zheng says.</p> <p>The researchers used information on urban levels of ultrafine particulate matter — PM 2.5 concentration — from the daily air quality readings released by China’s Ministry of Environmental Protection. Airborne particulate matter has become the primary air pollutant in Chinese cities in recent years, and PM 2.5 particles, which measure less than 2.5 microns in diameter, are particularly dangerous to people’s lungs.</p> <p>To measure daily happiness levels for each city, the team applied a machine-learning algorithm to analyze the 210 million geotagged tweets from China’s largest microblogging platform, Sina Weibo.</p> <p>The tweets cover a period from March to November 2014. For each tweet, the researchers applied the machine-trained sentiment analysis algorithm to measure the sentiment of the post. They then calculated the median value for that city and day, the so-called expressed happiness index, ranging from 0 to 100, with 0 indicating a very negative mood, and 100 a very positive one.</p> <p>Finally, the researchers merged this index with the daily PM2.5 concentration and weather data.</p> <p>They found a significantly negative correlation between pollution and happiness levels. What’s more, women were more sensitive to higher pollution levels than men, as were those on higher incomes.</p> <p>When the researchers looked at the type of cities that the tweets originated from, they found that people from the very cleanest and very dirtiest cities were the most severely affected by pollution levels.</p> <p>This may be because those people who are particularly concerned about their health and air quality tend to move to clean cities, while those in very dirty cities are more aware of the damage to their health from long-term exposure to pollutants, Zheng says.</p> <p>Through a creative use of social media data, the authors convincingly demonstrate a strong relationship between air quality and expressed happiness, a subjective measure of well-being, says Shanjun Li, a professor of environmental economics at Cornell University, who was not involved in the research.</p> <p>“The study adds to the growing scientific knowledge on the social cost of air pollution by focusing on the cost borne by the ‘silent majority’ who do not typically show up in the studies based on morbidity and mortality outcomes,” Li says.</p> <p>Zheng now hopes to continue her research into the impact of pollution on people’s behavior, and to investigate how China’s politicians will respond to the increasing public demand for cleaner air.</p> Researchers at MIT have discovered that air pollution in China’s cities may be associated with low levels of happiness amongst the country’s urban population.(Stock image)Urban studies and planning, School of Architecture and Planning, China, Asia, Social media, Earth and atmospheric sciences, Research, Environment, Pollution, Cities, Mental health Study shows how specific gene variants may raise bipolar disorder risk Findings could help inform new therapies, improve diagnosis. Thu, 17 Jan 2019 12:30:01 -0500 David Orenstein | Picower Institute for Learning and Memory <p>A new study by researchers at the Picower Institute for Learning and Memory at MIT finds that the protein CPG2 is significantly less abundant in the brains of people with bipolar disorder (BD) and shows how specific mutations in the SYNE1 gene that encodes the protein undermine its expression and its function in neurons.</p> <p>Led by Elly Nedivi, professor in MIT’s departments of Biology and Brain and Cognitive Sciences, and former postdoc Mette Rathje, the study goes beyond merely reporting associations between genetic variations and psychiatric disease. Instead, the team’s analysis and experiments show how a set of genetic differences in patients with bipolar disorder can lead to specific physiological dysfunction for neural circuit connections, or synapses, in the brain.</p> <p>The mechanistic detail and specificity of the findings provide new and potentially important information for developing novel treatment strategies and for improving diagnostics, Nedivi says.</p> <p>“It’s a rare situation where people have been able to link mutations genetically associated with increased risk of a mental health disorder to the underlying cellular dysfunction,” says Nedivi, senior author of the study online in <em>Molecular Psychiatry</em>. “For bipolar disorder this might be the one and only.”</p> <p>The researchers are not suggesting that the CPG2-related variations in SYNE1 are “the cause” of bipolar disorder, but rather that they likely contribute significantly to susceptibility to the disease. Notably, they found that sometimes combinations of the variants, rather than single genetic differences, were required for significant dysfunction to become apparent in laboratory models.</p> <p>“Our data fit a genetic architecture of BD, likely involving clusters of both regulatory and protein-coding variants, whose combined contribution to phenotype is an important piece of a puzzle containing other risk and protective factors influencing BD susceptibility,” the authors wrote.</p> <p><strong>CPG2 in the bipolar brain</strong></p> <p>During years of fundamental studies of synapses, Nedivi discovered CPG2, a protein expressed in response to neural activity, that helps regulate the number of receptors for the neurotransmitter glutamate at excitatory synapses. Regulation of glutamate receptor numbers is a key mechanism for modulating the strength of connections in brain circuits. When genetic studies identified SYNE1 as a risk gene specific to bipolar disorder, Nedivi’s team recognized the opportunity to shed light into the cellular mechanisms of this devastating neuropsychiatric disorder typified by recurring episodes of mania and depression.</p> <p>For the new study, Rathje led the charge to investigate how CPG2 may be different in people with the disease. To do that, she collected samples of postmortem brain tissue from six brain banks. The samples included tissue from people who had been diagnosed with bipolar disorder, people who had neuropsychiatric disorders with comorbid symptoms such as depression or schizophrenia, and people who did not have any of those illnesses. Only in samples from people with bipolar disorder was CPG2 significantly lower. Other key synaptic proteins were not uniquely lower in bipolar patients.</p> <p>“Our findings show a specific correlation between low CPG2 levels and incidence of BD that is not shared with schizophrenia or major depression patients,” the authors wrote.</p> <p>From there they used deep-sequencing techniques on the same brain samples to look for genetic variations in the SYNE1 regions of BD patients with reduced CPG2 levels. They specifically looked at ones located in regions of the gene that could regulate expression of CPG2 and therefore its abundance.</p> <p>Meanwhile, they also combed through genomic databases to identify genetic variants in regions of the gene that code CPG2. Those mutations could adversely affect how the protein is built and functions.</p> <p><strong>Examining effects</strong></p> <p>The researchers then conducted a series of experiments to test the physiological consequences of both the regulatory and protein coding variants found in BD patients.</p> <p>To test effects of non-coding variants on CPG2 expression, they cloned the CPG2 promoter regions from the human SYNE1 gene and attached them to a "reporter" that would measure how effective they were in directing protein expression in cultured neurons. They then compared these to the same regions cloned from BD patients that contained specific variants individually or in combination. Some did not affect the neurons’ ability to express CPG2 but some did profoundly. In two cases, pairs of variants (but neither of them individually), also reduced CPG2 expression.</p> <p>Previously Nedivi’s lab showed that human CPG2 can be used to replace rat CPG2 in culture neurons, and that it works the same way to regulate glutamate receptor levels. Using this assay they tested which of the coding variants might cause problems with CPG2’s cellular function. They found specific culprits that either reduced the ability of CPG2 to locate in the “spines” that house excitatory synapses or that decreased the proper cycling of glutamate receptors within synapses.</p> <p>The findings show how genetic variations associated with BD disrupt the levels and function of a protein crucial to synaptic activity and therefore the health of neural connections. It remains to be shown how these cellular deficits manifest as biopolar disorder.</p> <p>Nedivi’s lab plans further studies including assessing behavioral implications of difference-making variants in lab animals. Another is to take a deeper look at how variants affect glutamate receptor cycling and whether there are ways to fix it. Finally, she said, she wants to continue investigating human samples to gain a more comprehensive view of how specific combinations of CPG2-affecting variants relate to disease risk and manifestation.</p> <p>In addition to Rathje and Nedivi, the paper’s other authors are Hannah Waxman, Marc Benoit, Prasad Tammineni, Costin Leu, and Sven Loebrich.</p> <p>The JPB Foundation, the Gail Steel Fund, the Carlsberg Foundation, the Lundbeck Foundation and the Danish Council for Independent Research funded the study.</p> Some variants of the SYNE1 gene, such as V551A top right, reduced the ability of the protein CPG2, shown here as bright spots, to locate in protruding spines of dendrites that house excitatory synapses in the neurons of rats.Image: Nedivi Lab/Picower InstituteResearch, Picower Institute, Biology, Mental health, Brain and cognitive sciences, Bipolar disorder, Neuroscience SilverSneakers exercise program fights isolation MIT AgeLab researchers find that an exercise program for older adults has unexpected social and health benefits. Thu, 29 Nov 2018 12:00:00 -0500 Adam Felts | MIT AgeLab <p>As the holiday season prompts many Americans to think about signing up for health club&nbsp;memberships in the new year, it may help them to know that the gym may contain more virtues than simply helping&nbsp;work off that third serving of mashed potatoes. Researchers from the MIT AgeLab and Tivity Health have published <a href="">an article</a> in the <em>Journal of Applied Gerontology</em> that describes the social benefits of a national exercise program for older adults.</p> <p>Social isolation has grown into a major public health issue, having been shown to affect mortality in equivalence to major risk factors like obesity, smoking, and cardiovascular disease. The problem is especially salient within the field of gerontology: Older adults may be particularly vulnerable to isolation due to retirement, the loss of a spouse, or declining health and mobility.</p> <p>Despite having a clear impact on health, social isolation cannot be treated as an ordinary health issue. Targeted interventions to reduce isolation are questionable in their effectiveness, not least because they tend to draw middling interest from the individuals they are supposed to help.</p> <p>“No one wants to raise their hand and announce to the world, ‘I’m lonely,’” says&nbsp;Samantha Brady of the MIT AgeLab, the lead author of the study. “There is a stigma to social isolation that makes it hard to tackle head-on.”&nbsp;</p> <p>SilverSneakers is a national exercise program that provides free gym memberships and specialized fitness classes to older adults with certain Medicare Advantage insurance plans. MIT researchers hypothesized that SilverSneakers, while not designed expressly to reduce social isolation, would improve participants’ levels of social engagement by bringing them into the social environment of the gym, and by promoting activity in general.</p> <p>Cross-sectional data were obtained for the study through&nbsp;an online survey that was sent to about 1,000 SilverSneakers members and 2,000 non-members. The researchers sought to model and observe the relationships between SilverSneakers membership, physical activity, social isolation, loneliness, and self-reported health. The results showed that SilverSneakers membership had direct beneficial impacts on physical activity, social isolation, and health, as well as intermediary benefits for health through reduced social isolation, loneliness, and increased physical activity.&nbsp;The&nbsp;research was supported, in part, by <a href="">Tivity Health</a>.</p> <p>“Everyone recognizes the gym as a pro-health environment, but the mechanisms by which fitness program membership benefits health for older adults are more varied than mere exercise alone,” says&nbsp;study co-author Lisa D’Ambrosio.</p> <p>The identification of SilverSneakers as an intervention for social isolation raises further questions about what environmental mechanisms foster social engagement among older adults and whether other large-scale programs may have similar benefits.</p> <p>“Old age doesn’t have to be a sentence for solitude, but we have yet to sufficiently develop places and spaces where older adults can come together and belong,” says&nbsp;Joseph F. Coughlin, director of the MIT AgeLab. “This study points us toward one powerful way of engaging the 65-plus population, a group that in the coming years is sure to demand more meaningful activities and experiences as they age.”</p> <p>As older Americans plan their New Year’s resolutions, these results may give them yet another reason to add exercise to their list.</p> AgeLab researcher Taylor Patskanick exercises in the AGNES suit, which simulates the physical challenges of advanced age.Photo courtesy of MIT AgeLabCenter for Transportation and Logistics, Health, Research, Aging, Mental health, AgeLab Brain activity pattern may be early sign of schizophrenia In a study that might enable earlier diagnosis, neuroscientists find abnormal brain connections that can predict onset of psychotic episodes. Thu, 08 Nov 2018 09:59:59 -0500 Anne Trafton | MIT News Office <p>Schizophrenia, a brain disorder that produces hallucinations, delusions, and cognitive impairments, usually strikes during adolescence or young adulthood. While some signs can suggest that a person is at high risk for developing the disorder, there is no way to definitively diagnose it until the first psychotic episode occurs.</p> <p>MIT neuroscientists working with researchers at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center, Brigham and Women’s Hospital, and the Shanghai Mental Health Center have now identified a pattern of brain activity correlated with development of schizophrenia, which they say could be used as a marker to diagnose the disease earlier.</p> <p>“You can consider this pattern to be a risk factor. If we use these types of brain measurements, then maybe we can predict a little bit better who will end up developing psychosis, and that may also help tailor interventions,” says Guusje Collin, a visiting scientist at MIT’s McGovern Institute for Brain Research and the lead author of the paper.</p> <p>The study, which appears in the journal <em>Molecular Psychiatry</em> on Nov. 8, was performed at the Shanghai Mental Health Center. Susan Whitfield-Gabrieli, a visiting scientist at the McGovern Institute and a professor of psychology at Northeastern University, is one of the principal investigators for the study, along with Jijun Wang of the Shanghai Mental Health Center, William Stone of Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center, the late Larry Seidman of Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center, and Martha Shenton of Brigham and Women’s Hospital.</p> <p><strong>Abnormal connections</strong></p> <p>Before they experience a psychotic episode, characterized by sudden changes in behavior and a loss of touch with reality, patients can experience milder symptoms such as disordered thinking. This kind of thinking can lead to behaviors such as jumping from topic to topic at random, or giving answers unrelated to the original question. Previous studies have shown that about 25 percent of people who experience these early symptoms go on to develop schizophrenia.</p> <p>The research team performed the study at the Shanghai Mental Health Center because the huge volume of patients who visit the hospital annually gave them a large enough sample of people at high risk of developing schizophrenia.</p> <p>The researchers followed 158 people between the ages of 13 and 34 who were identified as high-risk because they had experienced early symptoms. The team also included 93 control subjects, who did not have any risk factors. At the beginning of the study, the researchers used functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to measure a type of brain activity involving “resting state networks.” Resting state networks consist of brain regions that preferentially connect with and communicate with each other when the brain is not performing any particular cognitive task.</p> <p>“We were interested in looking at the intrinsic functional architecture of the brain to see if we could detect early aberrant brain connectivity or networks in individuals who are in the clinically high-risk phase of the disorder,” Whitfield-Gabrieli says.</p> <p>One year after the initial scans, 23 of the high-risk patients had experienced a psychotic episode and were diagnosed with schizophrenia. In those patients’ scans, taken before their diagnosis, the researchers found a distinctive pattern of activity that was different from the healthy control subjects and the at-risk subjects who had not developed psychosis.</p> <p>For example, in most people, a part of the brain known as the superior temporal gyrus, which is involved in auditory processing, is highly connected to brain regions involved in sensory perception and motor control. However, in patients who developed psychosis, the superior temporal gyrus became more connected to limbic regions, which are involved in processing emotions. This could help explain why patients with schizophrenia usually experience auditory hallucinations, the researchers say.</p> <p>Meanwhile, the high-risk subjects who did not develop psychosis showed network connectivity nearly identical to that of the healthy subjects.</p> <p><strong>Early intervention</strong></p> <p>This type of distinctive brain activity could be useful as an early indicator of schizophrenia, especially since it is possible that it could be seen in even younger patients. The researchers are now performing similar studies with younger at-risk populations, including children with a family history of schizophrenia.&nbsp;</p> <p>“That really gets at the heart of how we can translate this clinically, because we can get in earlier and earlier to identify aberrant networks in the hopes that we can do earlier interventions, and possibly even prevent psychiatric disorders,” Whitfield-Gabrieli says.</p> <p>She and her colleagues are now testing early interventions that could help to combat the symptoms of schizophrenia, including cognitive behavioral therapy and neural feedback. The neural feedback approach involves training patients to use mindfulness meditation to reduce activity in the superior temporal gyrus, which tends to increase before and during auditory hallucinations.</p> <p>The researchers also plan to continue following the patients in the current study, and they are now analyzing some additional data on the white matter connections in the brains of these patients, to see if those connections might yield additional differences that could also serve as early indicators of disease.</p> <p>The research was funded by the National Institutes of Health, the Ministry of Science and Technology of China, and the Poitras Center for Psychiatric Disorders Research at MIT. Collin was supported by a Marie Curie Global Fellowship grant from the European Commission.</p> MIT neuroscientists found that patients who develop schizophrenia show abnormally high levels of communication between the superior temporal gyrus (brown) and the limbic regions (green).Image: MIT NewsResearch, Brain and cognitive sciences, McGovern Institute, School of Science, National Institutes of Health (NIH), Mental health, Neuroscience, Schizophrenia Dopamine primes the brain for enhanced vigilance Neuroscientists discover a circuit that helps redirect attention to focus on potential threats. Wed, 07 Nov 2018 12:59:59 -0500 Anne Trafton | MIT News Office <p>Imagine a herd of deer grazing in the forest. Suddenly, a twig snaps nearby, and they look up from the grass. The thought of food is forgotten, and the animals are primed to respond to any threat that might appear.</p> <p>MIT neuroscientists have now discovered a circuit that they believe controls the diversion of attention away from everyday pursuits, to focus on potential threats. They also found that dopamine is key to the process: It is released in the brain’s prefrontal cortex when danger is perceived, stimulating the prefrontal cortex to redirect its focus to a part of the brain that responds to threats.</p> <p>“The prefrontal cortex has long been thought to be important for attention and higher cognitive functions — planning, prioritizing, decision-making. It’s as though dopamine is the signal that tells the router to switch over to sending information down the pathway for escape-related behavior,” says Kay Tye, an MIT associate professor of brain and cognitive sciences and a member of MIT’s Picower Institute for Learning and Memory.</p> <p>When this circuit is off-balance, it could trigger anxious and paranoid behavior, possibly underlying some of the symptoms seen in schizophrenia, anxiety, and depression, Tye says.</p> <p>Tye is the senior author of the study, which appears in the Nov. 7 issue of <em>Nature</em>. The lead authors are former graduate student Caitlin Vander Weele, postdoc Cody Siciliano, and research scientist Gillian Matthews.</p> <p><strong>Threat response</strong></p> <p>One major role of the prefrontal cortex, which is the seat of conscious thought and other complex cognitive behavior, is to route information to different parts of the brain.</p> <p>In this study, Tye identified two populations of neurons in the prefrontal cortex, based on other brain regions that they communicate with. One set of neurons sends information to the nucleus accumbens, which is involved in motivation and reward, and the other group relays information to the periaqueductal gray (PAG), which is part of the brainstem. The PAG is involved in defensive behavior such as freezing or running.</p> <p>When we perceive a potentially dangerous event, a brain region called the ventral tegmental area (VTA) sends dopamine to the prefrontal cortex, and Tye and her colleagues wanted determine how dopamine affects the two populations they had identified. To achieve that, they designed an experiment where rats were trained to recognize two visual cues, one associated with sugar water and one with a mild electrical shock. Then, they explored what happened when both cues were presented at the same time.</p> <p>They found that if they stimulated dopamine release at the same time that the cues were given, the rats were much more likely to freeze (their normal response to the shock cue) than to head for the port where they would receive the sugar water. If they stimulated dopamine when just one of the cues was given, the rats’ behavior was not affected, suggesting that dopamine’s role is to enhance the escape response when the animals receive conflicting information.</p> <p>“The reward-associated neurons drop their spiking by a substantial amount, making it harder for you to pay attention to a reward,” Tye says.</p> <p>Further experiments suggested that dopamine acts by adjusting the signal-to-noise ratio in neurons of the prefrontal cortex. “Noise” is random firing of neurons, while the “signal” is the meaningful input coming in, such as sensory information. When neurons that connect to the PAG receive dopamine at the same time as a threatening stimulus, their signal goes up and the noise decreases. The researchers aren’t sure how this happens, but they suspect that dopamine may activate other neurons that help to amplify the signals already coming into the PAG-connected neurons, and suppress the activity of neurons that project to the nucleus accumbens.</p> <p><strong>Adapted for survival</strong></p> <p>This brain circuit could help give animals a better chance of surviving a threatening situation, Tye says. Any kind of danger sign, such as the snapping twig that startles a herd of deer, or a stranger roughly bumping into you on the sidewalk, can produce a surge of dopamine in the prefrontal cortex. This dopamine then promotes enhanced vigilance.</p> <p>“You would be on the defensive,” Tye says. “There may be some times that you run when you don’t need to, but more often than not, it might make sense to turn your attention to a potential threat.”</p> <p>Dysregulation of this dopamine-controlled switching may contribute to neuropsychiatric disorders such as schizophrenia, Tye says. Among other effects, too much dopamine could lead the brain to weigh negative inputs too highly. This could result in paranoia, often seen in schizophrenia patients, or anxiety.</p> <p>Tye now hopes to determine more precisely how dopamine affects other neurotransmitters involved in the modulation of the signal-to-noise ratio. She also plans to further explore the role of this kind of modulation in anxiety and phobias.</p> <p>The research was funded by the JPB Foundation, the Picower Institute Innovation Fund, the Picower Neurological Disorders Research Fund, the Junior Faculty Development Program, the Klingenstein Foundation, a NARSAD Young Investigator Award, the New York Stem Cell Foundation, the National Institutes of Health, the NIH Director’s New Innovator Award, and the NIH Pioneer Award.</p> MIT neuroscientists have discovered a neural circuit that helps the brain focus on potential threatsImage: Christine DaniloffResearch, Anxiety, Brain and cognitive sciences, Behavior, Mental health, Neuroscience, Picower Institute, School of Science, National Institutes of Health (NIH) A step toward personalized, automated smart homes System that automatically identifies people moving around indoors could enable self-adjusting homes. Wed, 17 Oct 2018 00:00:00 -0400 Rob Matheson | MIT News Office <p>Developing automated systems that track occupants and self-adapt to their preferences is a major next step for the future of smart homes. When you walk into a room, for instance, a system could set to your preferred temperature. Or when you sit on the couch, a system could instantly flick the television to your favorite channel.</p> <p>But enabling a home system to recognize occupants as they move around the house is a more complex problem. Recently, <a href="">systems</a> have been built that localize humans by measuring the reflections of wireless signals off their bodies. But these systems can’t identify the individuals. Other systems can identify people, but only if they’re always carrying their mobile devices. Both systems also rely on tracking signals that could be weak or get blocked by various structures.</p> <p>MIT researchers have built a system that takes a step toward fully automated smart home by identifying occupants, even when they’re not carrying mobile devices. The system, called Duet, uses reflected wireless signals to localize individuals. But it also incorporates algorithms that ping nearby mobile devices to predict the individuals’ identities, based on who last used the device and their predicted movement trajectory. It also uses logic to figure out who’s who, even in signal-denied areas.</p> <p>“Smart homes are still based on explicit input from apps or telling Alexa to do something. Ideally, we want homes to be more reactive to what we do, to adapt to us,” says Deepak Vasisht, a PhD student in MIT’s Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory (CSAIL) and lead author on a paper describing the system that was presented at last week’s Ubicomp conference. “If you enable location awareness and identification awareness for smart homes, you could do this automatically. Your home knows it’s you walking, and where you’re walking, and it can update itself.”</p> <p>Experiments done in a two-bedroom apartment with four people and an office with nine people, over two weeks, showed the system can identify individuals with 96 percent and 94 percent accuracy, respectively, including when people weren’t carrying their smartphones or were in blocked areas.</p> <p>But the system isn’t just novelty. Duet could potentially be used to recognize intruders or ensure visitors don’t enter private areas of your home. Moreover, Vasisht says, the system could capture behavioral-analytics insights for health care applications. Someone suffering from depression, for instance, may move around more or less, depending on how they’re feeling on any given day. Such information, collected over time, could be valuable for monitoring and treatment.</p> <p>“In behavioral studies, you care about how people are moving over time and how people are behaving,” Vasisht says. “All those questions can be answered by getting information on people’s locations and how they’re moving.”</p> <p>The researchers envision that their system would be used with explicit consent from anyone who would be identified and tracked with Duet. If needed, they could also develop an app for users to grant or revoke Duet’s access to their location information at any time, Vasisht adds.</p> <p>Co-authors on the paper are: Dina Katabi, the Andrew and Erna Viterbi Professor of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science; former CSAIL researcher Anubhav Jain ’16; and CSAIL PhD students Chen-Yu Hsu and Zachary Kabelac.</p> <p><strong>Tracking and identification</strong></p> <p>Duet is a wireless sensor installed on a wall that’s about a foot and a half squared. It incorporates a floor map with annotated areas, such as the bedroom, kitchen, bed, and living room couch. It also collects identification tags from the occupants’ phones.</p> <p>The system builds upon a device-based <a href="">localization system</a> built by Vasisht, Katabi, and other researchers that tracks individuals within tens of centimeters, based on wireless signal reflections from their devices. It does so by using a central node to calculate the time it takes the signals to hit a person’s device and travel back. In experiments, the system was able to pinpoint where people were in a two-bedroom apartment and in a café.</p> <p>The system, however, relied on people carrying mobile devices. “But in building [Duet] we realized, at home you don’t always carry your phone,” Vasisht says. “Most people leave devices on desks or tables, and walk around the house.”</p> <p>The researchers combined their device-based localization with a device-free tracking system, called <a href="">WiTrack</a>, developed by Katabi and other CSAIL researchers, that localizes people by measuring the reflections of wireless signals off their bodies.</p> <p>Duet locates a smartphone and correlates its movement with individual movement captured by the device-free localization. If both are moving in tightly correlated trajectories, the system pairs the device with the individual and, therefore, knows the identity of the individual.</p> <p>To ensure Duet knows someone’s identity when they’re away from their device, the researchers designed the system to capture the power profile of the signal received from the phone when it’s used. That profile changes, depending on the orientation of the signal, and that change be mapped to an individual’s trajectory to identify them. For example, when a phone is used and then put down, the system will capture the initial power profile. Then it will estimate how the power profile would look if it were still being carried along a path by a nearby moving individual. The closer the changing power profile correlates to the moving individual’s path, the more likely it is that individual owns the phone.</p> <p><strong>Logical thinking</strong></p> <p>One final issue is that structures such as bathroom tiles, television screens, mirrors, and various metal equipment can block signals.</p> <p>To compensate for that, the researchers incorporated probabilistic algorithms to apply logical reasoning to localization. To do so, they designed the system to recognize entrance and exit boundaries of specific spaces in the home, such as doors to each room, the bedside, and the side of a couch. At any moment, the system will recognize the most likely identity for each individual in each boundary. It then infers who is who by process of elimination.</p> <p>Suppose an apartment has two occupants: Alisha and Betsy. Duet sees Alisha and Betsy walk into the living room, by pairing their smartphone motion with their movement trajectories. Both then leave their phones on a nearby coffee table to charge —&nbsp;Betsy goes into the bedroom to nap; Alisha stays on the couch to watch television. Duet infers that Betsy has entered the bed boundary and didn’t exit, so must be on the bed. After a while, Alisha and Betsy move into, say, the kitchen —&nbsp;and the signal drops. Duet reasons that two people are in the kitchen, but it doesn’t know their identities. When Betsy returns to the living room and picks up her phone, however, the system automatically re-tags the individual as Betsy. By process of elimination, the other person still in the kitchen is Alisha.</p> <p>“There are blind spots in homes where systems won’t work. But, because you have logical framework, you can make these inferences,” Vasisht says.</p> <p>“Duet takes a smart approach of combining the location of different devices and associating it to humans, and leverages device-free localization techniques for localizing humans,” says Ranveer Chandra, a principal researcher at Microsoft, who was not involved in the work. “Accurately determining the location of all residents in a home has the potential to significantly enhance the in-home experience of users. … The home assistant can personalize the responses based on who all are around it; the temperature can be automatically controlled based on personal preferences, thereby resulting in energy savings. Future robots in the home could be more intelligent if they knew who was where in the house. The potential is endless.”</p> <p>Next, the researchers aim for long-term deployments of Duet in more spaces and to provide high-level analytic services for applications such as health monitoring and responsive smart homes.</p> MIT researchers have built a system that takes a step toward fully automated smart homes, by identifying occupants even when they’re not carrying mobile devices.Image: Chelsea Turner, MITResearch, Computer science and technology, Wireless, Mobile devices, Behavior, Mental health, Health sciences and technology, Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory (CSAIL), Electrical Engineering & Computer Science (eecs), School of Engineering Pilot program helps students boost wellness ENGINEERyourHEALTH PLUS is a three-year pilot program to enhance undergraduate student life through fitness, exercise, wellness, and recreational opportunities. Mon, 17 Sep 2018 13:20:00 -0400 Nicole Cooper | Division of Student Life <p>MIT’s new ENGINEERyourHEALTH PLUS<em> </em>program utilizes recreation to help students find practices to enhance their emotional, mental, and physical wellbeing. The program was developed by Director of MIT Recreation Stephanie Smith and her predecessor Tim Mertz, who both work for Health Fitness Corporation, which operates the Zesiger Center and the Alumni Pool and Wang Fitness Center.</p> <p>The main goal of ENGINEERyourHEALTH PLUS<em> </em>is to help students access MIT Recreation's wellness-boosting services and activities — such as massage, yoga, and personal training — more easily. The program even employs therapists and trainers who are available as late as 10 p.m., which makes it easier for students to fit sessions into their busy schedules.</p> <p>“Once you’re in this program, Steph and her team really take a consultative approach in helping the student to make decisions (about what activities would be most beneficial),” Mertz says.</p> <p>The inspiration came from a review of survey data. Mertz and Smith discovered that students cited cost, time, and location as persistent barriers to seeking support.</p> <p>“At the same time across campus, [there was] this intentional focus on mental health and improving the climate for different quality of life indicators,” Mertz explains. “We thought, well, MIT Recreation can do so much on the preventative, proactive side, and to be viewed and included as part of the campus care network would be excellent.”</p> <p>So, Smith and Mertz reached out to Student Support Services (S3) and suggested a partnership.</p> <p>“We had a discussion with them and said, ‘It would be great if students who need help and see you first could be referred into this program,’” Mertz explains, “then we can prescribe or provide access to these free programs.”</p> <p>Costs are covered by a grant from Suzy Nelson, vice president and dean for student life.&nbsp;The three-year pilot is currently in its second year, and Mertz notes that student feedback has been very positive.</p> <p>Junior Jessica Quaye, an electrical engineering and computer science major, was referred to the program in the fall of her sophomore year. After a successful first year, Quaye entered her second year with a heavy course load and lots of activities. Soon, the amount of work it took to fulfill her many commitments was wearing her down.</p> <p>“Everything was just overwhelming me at the time, and so I went to S3 and I spoke to my dean and I was just crying and frustrated.” After Quaye’s S3 dean referred her to the ENGINEERyourHEALTH PLUS program, she booked a massage which left her feeling refreshed and at ease. “[Stephanie] just made the entire process easy,” she explains, referring to the process of enrolling in ENGINEERyourHEALTH PLUS<em> </em>and selecting wellness activities.</p> <p>Quaye reflects on the warm, welcoming nature of her massage therapist, and the impact it had on her at the time. “For me, just having someone be nice to me in a really stressful moment just warmed my heart and made me feel like everything will be okay regardless of how stressed you are and how badly things are going,” she says.</p> <p>The following spring, Smith reached out to Quaye with an offer to continue with the program.</p> <p>“I was like, ‘Of course!’” Quaye insists that every student at MIT can benefit from ENGINEERyourHEALTH PLUS — not just those struggling with mental health. “It’s a break for [students],” Quaye says of the program. “For people who are taking on a lot of responsibilities, having the exercise or the massage just helps you to break away and just to take care of yourself and make sure you’re healthy.”</p> <p>Anyone interested can read more about <a href="" target="_blank">ENGINEERyourHEALTH PLUS</a><em> </em>at the MIT Recreation website<em>, </em>visit <a href="" target="_blank">Student Support Services</a><em>&nbsp;</em>online<em>, </em>stop by their office in Room 5-104, or call (617) 253-4861 to schedule an appointment.</p> ENGINEERyourHEALTH PLUS is a three-year pilot wellness program for MIT undergraduates.Image courtesy of MIT RecreationStudent life, Undergraduate, Mental health, Department of Athletics, Physical Education and Recreation (DAPER), Campus services, Community New sensors track dopamine in the brain for more than a year Tiny probes could be useful for monitoring patients with Parkinson’s and other diseases. Wed, 12 Sep 2018 05:00:00 -0400 Anne Trafton | MIT News Office <p>Dopamine, a signaling molecule used throughout the brain, plays a major role in regulating our mood, as well as controlling movement. Many disorders, including Parkinson’s disease, depression, and schizophrenia, are linked to dopamine deficiencies.</p> <p>MIT neuroscientists have now devised a way to measure dopamine in the brain for more than a year, which they believe will help them to learn much more about its role in both healthy and diseased brains.</p> <p>“Despite all that is known about dopamine as a crucial signaling molecule in the brain, implicated in neurologic and neuropsychiatric conditions as well as our abilty to learn, it has been impossible to monitor changes in the online release of dopamine over time periods long enough to relate these to clinical conditions,” says Ann Graybiel, an MIT Institute Professor, a member of MIT’s McGovern Institute for Brain Research, and one of the senior authors of the study.</p> <p>Michael Cima, the David H. Koch Professor of Engineering in the Department of Materials Science and Engineering and a member of MIT’s Koch Institute for Integrative Cancer Research, and Rober Langer, the David H. Koch Institute Professor and a member of the Koch Institute, are also senior authors of the study. MIT postdoc Helen Schwerdt is the lead author of the paper, which appears in the Sept. 12 issue of <em>Communications Biology</em>.</p> <p><strong>Long-term sensing</strong></p> <p>Dopamine is one of many neurotransmitters that neurons in the brain use to communicate with each other. Traditional systems for measuring dopamine — carbon electrodes with a shaft diameter of about 100 microns — can only be used reliably for about a day because they produce scar tissue that interferes with the electrodes’ ability to interact with dopamine.</p> <p>In 2015, the MIT team demonstrated that tiny microfabricated sensors could be used to measure dopamine levels in a part of the brain called the striatum, which contains dopamine-producing cells that are critical for habit formation and reward-reinforced learning.</p> <p>Because these probes are so small (about 10 microns in diameter), the researchers could implant up to 16 of them to measure dopamine levels in different parts of the striatum. In the new study, the researchers wanted to test whether they could use these sensors for long-term dopamine tracking.</p> <p>“Our fundamental goal from the very beginning was to make the sensors work over a long period of time and produce accurate readings from day to day,” Schwerdt says. “This is necessary if you want to understand how these signals mediate specific diseases or conditions.”</p> <p>To develop a sensor that can be accurate over long periods of time, the researchers had to make sure that it would not provoke an immune reaction, to avoid the scar tissue that interferes with the accuracy of the readings.</p> <p>The MIT team found that their tiny sensors were nearly invisible to the immune system, even over extended periods of time. After the sensors were implanted, populations of microglia (immune cells that respond to short-term damage), and astrocytes, which respond over longer periods, were the same as those in brain tissue that did not have the probes inserted.</p> <p>In this study, the researchers implanted three to five sensors per animal, about 5 millimeters deep, in the striatum. They took readings every few weeks, after stimulating dopamine release from the brainstem, which travels to the striatum. They found that the measurements remained consistent for up to 393 days.</p> <p>“This is the first time that anyone’s shown that these sensors work for more than a few months. That gives us a lot of confidence that these kinds of sensors might be feasible for human use someday,” Schwerdt says.</p> <p>Paul Glimcher, a professor of physiology and neuroscience at New York University, says the new sensors should enable more researchers to perform long-term studies of dopamine, which is essential for studying phenomena such as learning, which occurs over long time periods.</p> <p>“This is a really solid engineering accomplishment that moves the field forward,” says Glimcher, who was not involved in the research. “This dramatically improves the technology in a way that makes it accessible to a lot of labs.”</p> <p><strong>Monitoring Parkinson’s</strong></p> <p>If developed for use in humans, these sensors could be useful for monitoring Parkinson’s patients who receive deep brain stimulation, the researchers say. This treatment involves implanting an electrode that delivers electrical impulses to a structure deep within the brain. Using a sensor to monitor dopamine levels could help doctors deliver the stimulation more selectively, only when it is needed.</p> <p>The researchers are now looking into adapting the sensors to measure other neurotransmitters in the brain, and to measure electrical signals, which can also be disrupted in Parkinson’s and other diseases.</p> <p>“Understanding those relationships between chemical and electrical activity will be really important to understanding all of the issues that you see in Parkinson’s,” Schwerdt says.</p> <p>The research was funded by the National Institute of Biomedical Imaging and Bioengineering, the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke, the Army Research Office, the Saks Kavanaugh Foundation, the Nancy Lurie Marks Family Foundation, and Dr. Tenley Albright.</p> MIT neuroscientists have devised a way to measure dopamine in the brain for more than a year, using microfabricated sensors that are so tiny they don’t lead to the formation of scar tissue.Image: Felice FrankelBrain and cognitive sciences, Neuroscience, Sensors, Mental health, Parkinson's, Depression, National Institutes of Health (NIH), McGovern Institute, Koch Institute, Materials Science and Engineering Model can more naturally detect depression in conversations Neural network learns speech patterns that predict depression in clinical interviews. Wed, 29 Aug 2018 23:59:59 -0400 Rob Matheson | MIT News Office <p>To diagnose depression, clinicians interview patients, asking specific questions —&nbsp;about, say, past mental illnesses, lifestyle, and mood — and identify the condition based on the patient’s responses.</p> <p>In recent years, machine learning has been championed as a useful aid for diagnostics. Machine-learning models, for instance, have been developed that can detect words and intonations of speech that may indicate depression. But these models tend to predict that a person is depressed or not, based on the person’s specific answers to specific questions. These methods are accurate, but their reliance on the type of question being asked limits how and where they can be used.</p> <p>In a paper being presented at the Interspeech conference, MIT researchers detail a neural-network model that can be unleashed on raw text and audio data from interviews to discover speech patterns indicative of depression. Given a new subject, it can accurately predict if the individual is depressed, without needing any other information about the questions and answers.</p> <p>The researchers hope this method can be used to develop tools to detect signs of depression in natural conversation. In the future, the model could, for instance, power mobile apps that monitor a user’s text and voice for mental distress and send alerts. This could be especially useful for those who can’t get to a clinician for an initial diagnosis, due to distance, cost, or a lack of awareness that something may be wrong.</p> <p>“The first hints we have that a person is happy, excited, sad, or has some serious cognitive condition, such as depression, is through their speech,” says first author Tuka Alhanai, a researcher in the Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory (CSAIL). “If you want to deploy [depression-detection] models in scalable way … you want to minimize the amount of constraints you have on the data you’re using. You want to deploy it in any regular conversation and have the model pick up, from the natural interaction, the state of the individual.”</p> <p>The technology could still, of course, be used for identifying mental distress in casual conversations in clinical offices, adds co-author James Glass, a senior research scientist in CSAIL. “Every patient will talk differently, and if the model sees changes maybe it will be a flag to the doctors,” he says. “This is a step forward in seeing if we can do something assistive to help clinicians.”</p> <p>The other co-author on the paper is Mohammad Ghassemi, a member of the Institute for Medical Engineering and Science (IMES).</p> <p><strong>Context-free modeling</strong></p> <p>The key innovation of the model lies in its ability to detect patterns indicative of depression, and then map those patterns to new individuals, with no additional information. “We call it ‘context-free,’ because you’re not putting any constraints into the types of questions you’re looking for and the type of responses to those questions,” Alhanai says.</p> <p>Other models are provided with a specific set of questions, and then given examples of how a person without depression responds and examples of how a person with depression responds — for example, the straightforward inquiry, “Do you have a history of depression?” It uses those exact responses to then determine if a new individual is depressed when asked the exact same question. “But that’s not how natural conversations work,” Alhanai says. &nbsp;&nbsp;</p> <p>The researchers, on the other hand, used a technique called sequence modeling, often used for speech processing. With this technique, they fed the model sequences of text and audio data from questions and answers, from both depressed and non-depressed individuals, one by one. As the sequences accumulated, the model extracted speech patterns that emerged for people with or without depression. Words such as, say, “sad,” “low,” or “down,” may be paired with audio signals that are flatter and more monotone. Individuals with depression may also speak slower and use longer pauses between words. These text and audio identifiers for mental distress have been explored in previous research. It was ultimately up to the model to determine if any patterns were predictive of depression or not.</p> <p>“The model sees sequences of words or speaking style, and determines that these patterns are more likely to be seen in people who are depressed or not depressed,” Alhanai says. “Then, if it sees the same sequences in new subjects, it can predict if they’re depressed too.”</p> <p>This sequencing technique also helps the model look at the conversation as a whole and note differences between how people with and without depression speak over time.</p> <p><strong>Detecting depression</strong></p> <p>The researchers trained and tested their model on a dataset of 142 interactions from the Distress Analysis Interview Corpus that contains audio, text, and video interviews of patients with mental-health issues and virtual agents controlled by humans. Each subject is rated in terms of depression on a scale between 0 to 27, using the Personal Health Questionnaire. Scores above a cutoff between moderate (10 to 14) and moderately severe (15 to 19) are considered depressed, while all others below that threshold are considered not depressed. Out of all the subjects in the dataset, 28 (20 percent) are labeled as depressed.</p> <p>In experiments, the model was evaluated using metrics of precision and recall. Precision measures which of the depressed subjects identified by the model were diagnosed as depressed. Recall measures the accuracy of the model in detecting all subjects who were diagnosed as depressed in the entire dataset. In precision, the model scored 71 percent and, on recall, scored 83 percent. The averaged combined score for those metrics, considering any errors, was 77 percent. In the majority of tests, the researchers’ model outperformed nearly all other models.</p> <p>One key insight from the research, Alhanai notes, is that, during experiments, the model needed much more data to predict depression from audio than text. With text, the model can accurately detect depression using an average of seven question-answer sequences. With audio, the model needed around 30 sequences. “That implies that the patterns in words people use that are predictive of depression happen in shorter time span in text than in audio,” Alhanai says. Such insights could help the MIT researchers, and others, further refine their models.</p> <p>This work represents a “very encouraging” pilot, Glass says. But now the researchers seek to discover what specific patterns the model identifies across scores of raw data. “Right now it’s a bit of a black box,” Glass says. “These systems, however, are more believable when you have an explanation of what they’re picking up. … The next challenge is finding out what data it’s seized upon.”</p> <p>The researchers also aim to test these methods on additional data from many more subjects with other cognitive conditions, such as dementia. “It’s not so much detecting depression, but it’s a similar concept of evaluating, from an everyday signal in speech, if someone has cognitive impairment or not,” Alhanai says.</p> MIT researchers have developed a neural-network model that can analyze raw text and audio data from interviews to discover speech patterns indicative of depression. This method could be used to develop diagnostic aids for clinicians that can detect signs of depression in natural conversation.Research, Artificial intelligence, Machine learning, Data, Behavior, Health care, Mental health, Depression, Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory (CSAIL), Electrical Engineering & Computer Science (eecs), Institute for Medical Engineering and Science (IMES), School of Engineering The debate over how working memory works Scientists present dueling theories in the high-stakes quest to understand how we hold and juggle multiple pieces of information in mind. Thu, 09 Aug 2018 14:30:00 -0400 David Orenstein | Picower Institute for Learning and Memory <p>In a debate where the stakes are nothing short of understanding how the brain maintains its so-called “sketchpad of conscious thought,” researchers discuss exactly what makes working memory work in dueling papers in the Aug.&nbsp;8 edition of the <em>Journal of Neuroscience</em>.</p> <p>Working memory is how you hold things in mind like the directions to a new restaurant and the list of specials the waiter rattles off after you sit down. Given that working memory capacity is a strong correlate of intelligence and that its dysfunction is a major symptom in common psychiatric disorders such as schizophrenia and autism, Mikael Lundqvist, a postdoc at MIT’s Picower Institute for Learning and Memory and lead author of one of the papers, says it’s important that the field achieve a true understanding of how it works.</p> <p>Lundqvist's corresponding author and Picower Professor Earl Miller adds that&nbsp;if scientist can figure out how working memory&nbsp;works,&nbsp;“we can figure out how to fix it.”</p> <p>“Working memory is the sketchpad of consciousness,” Miller says. “Doesn’t everyone want to know how our conscious mind works?”</p> <p>The opposing&nbsp;paper in the “Dual Perspectives” section of the journal is led by Christos Constantinidis of the Wake Forest School of Medicine.</p> <p>The central issue of the debate is what happens after you hear or see what you need to remember and must then hold or control it in mind to apply it later. During that interim, or delay period,&nbsp;the central question is whether&nbsp;neurons in your brain’s prefrontal cortex maintain it by persistently firing away, like an idling car engine, or whether&nbsp;they spike in brief but coordinated bursts to store and retrieve information via the patterns of their connections, which is akin to how longer-term memory works.</p> <p>In their essay, Lundqvist, Miller, and Pawel Herman off the KTH Royal Institute of Technology in Stockholm, Sweden take the latter position. They argue that brief, coordinated bursts are clearly evident in the observations of the most recent experiments and that such activity can more satisfactorily produce key attributes of working memory, including efficient, independent control of multiple items with precise timing.</p> <p>Importantly, the idea that spiking during the delay period drives changes in neural connections, or synapses, reinforces the classic idea that spiking has a crucial role in working memory, Miller says. The disagreement, he says, is merely that the spiking activity is not as persistent as it looks in older experiments.</p> <p>“We’re showing additional mechanisms by which spiking maintains working memory and gives volitional control,” Miller says. “Our work doesn’t argue against the idea that delay activity spiking plays a role in working memory, it adds further support. We are just saying that at a more granular level, there are some additional things going on.”</p> <p>For example, much of the disagreement arises from how different researchers have collected and analyzed their data. The data supporting the persistence interpretation arise mostly from analyses in which researchers averaged the firing patterns of small numbers of neurons over many working memory trials, the MIT authors say.</p> <p>Averages, however, tend to smooth data out over the long term. Instead, in newer experiments, scientists have analyzed the spiking of many neurons in each individual trial. There, it’s clear that as animals perform working memory tasks, populations of neurons fire in brief, coordinated bursts, Miller and Lundqvist say.</p> <p>In their research, members of the Miller lab have also shown how groups of neurons are coordinated, demonstrating how a large-scale, precisely timed interplay of brain rhythms correlate with goal-directed control of working memory functions such as storing or releasing, information from being in mind.</p> <p>Some of the disagreement also arises from models of working memory function. Miller and Lundqvist argue that it makes functional sense that neurons fire in short, cohesive bursts in accord with circuit-wide oscillations. That&nbsp;uses less energy than keeping neurons firing all the time, for example, and readily explains how multiple items can be held in mind simultaneously (distinct bursts representing different pieces of information can occur at different times). Moreover, storing information in patterns of synaptic connections makes the information more resilient to distraction than if neurons are constantly trying to maintain it through activity.</p> <p>“Storing information with a mixture of spiking and synapses gives the brain more flexibility,” Lundqvist says. “It can juggle the activation of different memories, allowing the brain to hold multiple memories without them interfering with each other. Plus, synapses can store temporarily store memories while the spiking processes other thoughts.</p> <p>“This could explain how our working memory is not erased by things that temporarily distract us,” he says.</p> <p>With a lot of new research activity and data coming in, Lundqvist added, it’s a debate whose time has come.</p> <p>“This is a good time to see what the evidence is and to determine what are the experiments that will settle this,” he says. “We need more experiments to settle this. They will give us not only more insight into this question of persistence but also about working memory function.”</p> <p>MIT paper recommends four major principles to help research continue to move forward: measuring the activity of whole populations of individual neurons; analyzing every trial separately; making the tasks animals do complex enough to require controlling multiple pieces of information; and measuring neural rhythms instead of&nbsp;just spiking.</p> <p>The Miller lab’s research on working memory is funded by the National Institutes of Health, the Office of Naval Research, and the MIT Picower Institute Innovation Fund.</p> Neuroscientists are debating the nature and meaning of neural activity during the critical moment of working memory when people must hold information in mind.School of Science, Picower Institute for Learning and Memory, Brain and cognitive sciences, Research, Memory, Mental health, National Institutes of Health (NIH), Neuroscience Neuroscientists get at the roots of pessimism Stimulating the brain’s caudate nucleus generates a negative outlook that clouds decision-making. Thu, 09 Aug 2018 11:00:00 -0400 Anne Trafton | MIT News Office <p>Many patients with neuropsychiatric disorders such as anxiety or depression experience negative moods that lead them to focus on the possible downside of a given situation more than the potential benefit.</p> <p>MIT neuroscientists have now pinpointed a brain region that can generate this type of pessimistic mood. In tests in animals, they showed that stimulating this region, known as the caudate nucleus, induced animals to make more negative decisions: They gave far more weight to the anticipated drawback of a situation than its benefit, compared to when the region was not stimulated. This pessimistic decision-making could continue through the day after the original stimulation.</p> <p>The findings could help scientists better understand how some of the crippling effects of depression and anxiety arise, and guide them in developing new treatments.</p> <p>“We feel we were seeing a proxy for anxiety, or depression, or some mix of the two,” says Ann Graybiel, an MIT Institute Professor, a member of MIT’s McGovern Institute for Brain Research, and the senior author of the study, which appears in the Aug. 9 issue of <em>Neuron</em>. “These psychiatric problems are still so very difficult to treat for many individuals suffering from them.”</p> <p>The paper’s lead authors are McGovern Institute research affiliates Ken-ichi Amemori and Satoko Amemori, who perfected the tasks and have been studying emotion and how it is controlled by the brain. McGovern Institute researcher Daniel Gibson, an expert in data analysis, is also an author of the paper.</p> <p><img alt="" src="/sites/" /></p> <p><em><span style="font-size:10px;">MIT neuroscientists have found that stimulating part of the striatum can induce feelings of pessimism. (Anatomography/Life Science Databases)</span></em></p> <p><strong>Emotional decisions</strong></p> <p>Graybiel’s laboratory has previously identified a <a href="">neural circuit</a> that underlies a specific kind of decision-making known as approach-avoidance conflict. These types of decisions, which require weighing options with both positive and negative elements, tend to provoke a great deal of anxiety. Her lab has also shown that <a href="">chronic stress</a> dramatically affects this kind of decision-making: More stress usually leads animals to choose high-risk, high-payoff options.</p> <p>In the new study, the researchers wanted to see if they could reproduce an effect that is often seen in people with depression, anxiety, or obsessive-compulsive disorder. These patients tend to engage in ritualistic behaviors designed to combat negative thoughts, and to place more weight on the potential negative outcome of a given situation. This kind of negative thinking, the researchers suspected, could influence approach-avoidance decision-making.</p> <p>To test this hypothesis, the researchers stimulated the caudate nucleus, a brain region linked to emotional decision-making, with a small electrical current as animals were offered a reward (juice) paired with an unpleasant stimulus (a puff of air to the face). In each trial, the ratio of reward to aversive stimuli was different, and the animals could choose whether to accept or not.</p> <p>This kind of decision-making requires cost-benefit analysis. If the reward is high enough to balance out the puff of air, the animals will choose to accept it, but when that ratio is too low, they reject it. When the researchers stimulated the caudate nucleus, the cost-benefit calculation became skewed, and the animals began to avoid combinations that they previously would have accepted. This continued even after the stimulation ended, and could also be seen the following day, after which point it gradually disappeared.</p> <p>This result suggests that the animals began to devalue the reward that they previously wanted, and focused more on the cost of the aversive stimulus. “This state we’ve mimicked has an overestimation of cost relative to benefit,” Graybiel says.</p> <p>The study provides valuable insight into the role of the basal ganglia (a region that includes the caudate nucleus) in this type of decision-making, says Scott Grafton, a professor of neuroscience at the University of California at Santa Barbara, who was not involved in the research.</p> <p>“We know that the frontal cortex and the basal ganglia are involved, but the relative contributions of the basal ganglia have not been well understood,” Grafton says. “This is a nice paper because it puts some of the decision-making process in the basal ganglia as well.”</p> <p><strong>A delicate balance</strong></p> <p>The researchers also found that brainwave activity in the caudate nucleus was altered when decision-making patterns changed. This change, discovered by Amemori, is in the beta frequency and might serve as a biomarker to monitor whether animals or patients respond to drug treatment, Graybiel says.</p> <p>Graybiel is now working with psychiatrists at McLean Hospital to study patients who suffer from depression and anxiety, to see if their brains show abnormal activity in the neocortex and caudate nucleus during approach-avoidance decision-making. Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) studies have shown abnormal activity in two regions of the medial prefrontal cortex that connect with the caudate nucleus.</p> <p>The caudate nucleus has within it regions that are connected with the limbic system, which regulates mood, and it sends input to motor areas of the brain as well as dopamine-producing regions. Graybiel and Amemori believe that the abnormal activity seen in the caudate nucleus in this study could be somehow disrupting dopamine activity.</p> <p>“There must be many circuits involved,” she says. “But apparently we are so delicately balanced that just throwing the system off a little bit can rapidly change behavior.”</p> <p>The research was funded by the National Institutes of Health, the CHDI Foundation, the U.S. Office of Naval Research, the U.S. Army Research Office, MEXT KAKENHI, the Simons Center for the Social Brain, the Naito Foundation, the Uehara Memorial Foundation, Robert Buxton, Amy Sommer, and Judy Goldberg.</p> New findings may help scientists better understand how some of the crippling effects of depression and anxiety arise, and guide them in developing new treatments.Research, Brain and cognitive sciences, McGovern Institute, School of Science, National Institutes of Health (NIH), Neuroscience, Behavior, Anxiety, Mental health Healthy mind and body Division of Student Life courses aim to support students’ mental and physical well-being. Mon, 02 Jul 2018 09:50:01 -0400 Kollin Wasserlein | MindHandHeart Initiative <p>A group of students sit in a circle, their eyes closed, and their legs crossed. Upon the instructor’s words, they breathe in, and then out in harmony.</p> <p>Deep breathing exercises are probably not the first thing that comes to mind when one imagines a “physical education” class. More likely, one would recall a vertical rope climb, the <a href="" target="_blank">PACER test</a>, or the perils of high school dodgeball. At MIT, however, physical education aims to be holistic and supportive of students’ mental and physical well-being.</p> <p>During the 2017-18 academic year, the <a href="">MIT Physical Education</a> and Wellness Program in the <a href="">Division of Student Life</a> added two new courses. Piloted through the <a href="" target="_blank">MindHandHeart Innovation Fund</a>, a program where members of the MIT community apply for grants that support wellness and mental health on campus, students are now able to enroll in Meditation/Fitness and Healthy Relationships/Fitness for PE points.</p> <p>Led this year by Sarah K. Johnson, Michele McCauley, Jennifer Pustz, and Jennifer Earls, the Meditation/Fitness course focuses on relaxation, deep focus techniques, and finding time for self-care in students’ busy schedules. “I want students to feel that meditation is accessible for any lifestyle and schedule — including theirs,” Johnson says. “Just one minute of belly-breathing per day can a make a difference, with the potential to snowball into a new healthy habit for mind and body.”</p> <p>MIT student Sean Noriega '18 took the meditation course, which filled to capacity in all four sections. When asked how the class has improved his time at MIT, Noriega said, “My biggest takeaway is that so many techniques to improve my mood and productivity can be done at home.” The course also teaches and practices basic fitness principles.</p> <p>Healthy Relationships/Fitness was led by Vienna Rothberg, peer education and prevention specialist in MIT’s <a href="">Violence Prevention and Response (VPR)</a> office, and physical education instructors Julie Ann Whitson and Sarah Johnson.</p> <p>“This might be the best chance for most folks to access accurate information about healthy relationships and sexual health in a structured format,” Rothberg says. “Evidence suggests that when people have access to accurate and medically-based sexuality and relationship information, they make healthier choices about their bodies and their relationships.” After the course, students shared that they appreciated having a place for in-depth, personal conversations, which can be challenging to have outside of the classroom. Like the Meditation/Fitness course, this course covered basic fitness principles.</p> <p>These classes will continue into the upcoming academic year. The MIT Physical Education and Wellness Program will continue to build upon and update the curriculum based on student feedback. “Wellness is an area of growth for our program,” says Carrie Sampson Moore, director of MIT Physical Education and Wellness, who led the effort to create the new courses. “Students reported that these classes helped them manage stress.”</p> Students practice meditation in the new Meditation/Fitness course offered through the MIT Physical Education and Wellness Program in the Division of Student Life.Photo: Maisie O'BrienCommunity, Mental health, Student life, MindHandHeart, Department of Athletics, Physical Education and Recreation (DAPER), Campus services MindHandHeart announces 12 new Innovation Fund winners The seventh round of MindHandHeart Innovation Fund projects have been selected to bring creative wellness and mental health programming to campus. Fri, 29 Jun 2018 14:50:01 -0400 Maisie O’Brien | MindHandHeart Initiative <p>From a garden wall to a sleep challenge to a storytelling showcase, the newest <a href="" target="_blank">MindHandHeart Innovation Fund winners</a> aim to make MIT a more welcoming and healthy place. Sponsored by the <a href="" target="_blank">Office of the Chancellor</a> and <a href="" target="_blank">MIT Medical</a>, the fund offers grants of up to $10,000 to students, faculty, and staff with ideas to promote mental health and well-being.</p> <p>MindHandHeart (MHH) awarded $42,138 to 12 projects, half of which are student-driven. Each proposal was reviewed by a committee comprised of members of the Undergraduate Association (UA) and Graduate Student Council (GSC); past Innovation Fund winners; and the MindHandHeart’s leadership team, including Chancellor Cynthia Barnhart, Medical Director Cecilia Stuopis, and Media Lab Professor and MHH Faculty Chair Rosalind Picard.</p> <p>Several projects aim to promote mental health and well-being on campus. “MIT Prevention 2.0 Advanced Training for Gatekeepers” consists of a series of trainings for MIT gatekeepers to better support students. Gatekeepers include those who work directly with students and are in a position to respond to crisis situations, such as graduate resident advisors and tutors (GRA/GRTs), <a href="" target="_blank">iREFs</a> (Institute-wide Resources for Easing Friction and Stress) peer mentors, and <a href="" target="_blank">Medlinks</a>, liaisons between undergraduate students and MIT Medical.</p> <p>Zan Barry, senior program manager in Community Wellness at MIT Medical, is spearheading this project and reflects on its potential, saying: “This joint effort will combine the expertise of students, mental health clinicians, student life professionals, and others. MIT is such a caring community, and Prevention 2.0 is another expression of that care.”</p> <p>“Sleep Well” is a student-led challenge where members of the MIT community are encouraged to prioritize sleep and develop effective bedtime routines. Sponsored by the <a href="" target="_blank">Teaching and Learning Lab</a>, “Growth Mindset Video Resources for University Teaching Staff” are videos and supplemental resources to promote <a href="" target="_blank">growth mindset</a>, which has been associated with resiliency in times of academic stress.</p> <p>Several projects are altering MIT’s physical landscape to build community and foster a sense of calm. Sponsored by <a href="" target="_blank">LGBTQ@MIT</a>, “Healing Gardens” is establishing indoor greenery in student spaces, encouraging socialization through cultivating gardens that signify growth, healing, and resilience. “MIT Medical Restorative Garden Wall” will create a garden wall and seating where MIT Medical patients can relax while waiting for their appointments. And, “Cozy Eddies- Lovely and Comforting Spaces that Remind Us to Pause” will build a playful, relaxing space inside of Building 9 to bring joy to passersby.</p> <p>Additionally, a painting of doves in flight is coming to Building W11, courtesy of an undergraduate-led project entitled “Peaceful Painting.”</p> <p>Five projects are working to build community at MIT in innovative ways. The “DUSP Healthy Masculinities Discussion Group Retreat” will offer a weekend retreat to members of the Department of Urban Studies and Planning (DUSP) Healthy Masculinities Discussion Group, where students will discuss topics of masculinity and vulnerability. The “Modern Family Mindfulness Program” will provide classes encouraging healthy relationships for adults living in MIT’s family housing communities as well as fun exercises for their children.</p> <p>“OneWeek” is a student-driven series of events celebrating the many cultures represented in the MIT community as well as a venue to discuss global issues. “MITell Storytelling Showcase” will showcase personal stories told by members of the MIT community. Organized by the <a href="">Social Justice Programming and Cross Cultural Engagement Intercultural (SPXCE) Center</a>, “The SPXCE Race” consists of events and activities bringing students together in the style of the TV show “The Amazing Race.”</p> <p>MindHandHeart is accepting applications for the next funding cycle from Oct. 1 to 30. To learn more about how MIT faculty, students, and staff can apply for grants of up to $10,000, visit the <a href="" target="_blank">MindHandHeart Innovation Fund page</a>.</p> MindHandHeart Innovation Fund winners, Spring 2018Photo: Maisie O'BrienMindHandHeart, Community, Mental health, Student life, Chancellor, MIT Medical, Grants, Students, Faculty, Staff, Campus services Artificial intelligence senses people through walls Wireless smart-home system from the Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory could monitor diseases and help the elderly “age in place.” Tue, 12 Jun 2018 13:30:01 -0400 Adam Conner-Simons | Rachel Gordon | CSAIL <p>X-ray vision has long seemed like a far-fetched sci-fi fantasy, but over the last decade a team led by Professor Dina Katabi from MIT’s <a href="" target="_blank">Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory</a> (CSAIL) has continually gotten us closer to seeing through walls.</p> <p>Their latest project, “<a href="" target="_blank">RF-Pose</a>,” uses artificial intelligence (AI) to teach wireless devices to sense people’s postures and movement, even from the other side of a wall.</p> <p>The researchers use a neural network to analyze radio signals that bounce off people’s bodies, and can then create a dynamic stick figure that walks, stops, sits, and moves its limbs as the person performs those actions.</p> <div class="cms-placeholder-content-video"></div> <p>The team says that RF-Pose could be used to monitor diseases like Parkinson’s, multiple sclerosis (MS), and muscular dystrophy, providing a better understanding of disease progression and allowing doctors to adjust medications accordingly. It could also help elderly people live more independently, while providing the added security of monitoring for falls, injuries and changes in activity patterns. The team is currently working with doctors to explore RF-Pose’s applications in health care.</p> <p>All data the team collected has subjects' consent and is anonymized and encrypted to protect user privacy. For future real-world applications, they plans to implement a “consent mechanism” in which the person who installs the device is cued to do a specific set of movements in order for it to begin to monitor the environment.</p> <p>“We’ve seen that monitoring patients’ walking speed and ability to do basic activities on their own gives health care providers a window into their lives that they didn’t have before, which could be meaningful for a whole range of diseases,” says Katabi, who co-wrote a <a href="" target="_blank">new paper</a> about the project. “A key advantage of our approach is that patients do not have to wear sensors or remember to charge their devices.”</p> <p>Besides health care, the team says that RF-Pose could also be used for new classes of video games where players move around the house, or even in search-and-rescue missions to help locate survivors.</p> <p>Katabi co-wrote the new paper with PhD student and lead author Mingmin Zhao, MIT Professor Antonio Torralba, postdoc Mohammad Abu Alsheikh, graduate student Tianhong Li, and PhD students Yonglong Tian and Hang Zhao. They will present it later this month at the Conference on Computer Vision and Pattern Recognition (CVPR) in Salt Lake City, Utah.</p> <p>One challenge the researchers had to address is that most neural networks are trained using data labeled by hand. A neural network trained to identify cats, for example, requires that people look at a big dataset of images and label each one as either “cat” or “not cat.” Radio signals, meanwhile, can’t be easily labeled by humans.</p> <p>To address this, the researchers collected examples using both their wireless device and a camera. They gathered thousands of images of people doing activities like walking, talking, sitting, opening doors and waiting for elevators.</p> <p>They then used these images from the camera to extract the stick figures, which they showed to the neural network along with the corresponding radio signal. This combination of examples enabled the system to learn the association between the radio signal and the stick figures of the people in the scene.</p> <p>Post-training, RF-Pose was able to estimate a person’s posture and movements without cameras, using only the wireless reflections that bounce off people’s bodies.</p> <p>Since cameras can’t see through walls, the network was never explicitly trained on data from the other side of a wall – which is what made it particularly surprising to the MIT team that the network could generalize its knowledge to be able to handle through-wall movement.</p> <p>“If you think of the computer vision system as the teacher, this is a truly fascinating example of the student outperforming the teacher,” says Torralba.</p> <p>Besides sensing movement, the authors also showed that they could use wireless signals to accurately identify somebody 83 percent of the time out of a line-up of 100 individuals. This ability could be particularly useful for the application of search-and-rescue operations, when it may be helpful to know the identity of specific people.</p> <p>For this paper, the model outputs a 2-D stick figure, but the team is also working to create 3-D representations that would be able to reflect even smaller micromovements. For example, it might be able to see if an older person’s hands are shaking regularly enough that they may want to get a check-up.</p> <p>“By using this combination of visual data and AI to see through walls, we can enable better scene understanding and smarter environments to live safer, more productive lives,” says Zhao.</p> Using wireless signals, RF-Pose could serve as a health care system to monitor patients' movements from the other side of a wall.Image: Jason Dorfman/MIT CSAILComputer science and technology, Artificial intelligence, Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory (CSAIL), Electrical Engineering & Computer Science (eecs), Wireless, Health care, Research, internet of things, Mental health, Behavior, Algorithms, Machine learning MIT takes a break with the Day of Play Annual event allows the MIT community to come together and unwind, have fun, and celebrate the hard work of the previous months. Mon, 11 Jun 2018 14:00:01 -0400 Isabel Stewart | Division of Student Life <p>Finals week is a stressful time for many MIT students, but on a sunny Friday in May, the community puts studying aside for a few hours of food, games, music, and more at the MIT Day of Play.</p> <p>Bubbles float through the air past people flipping and bouncing on bungee jumps. Lawn games like oversized Jenga and Connect Four litter the Kresge Oval while students lounge on the grass to soak up the sun while enjoying freshly grilled food and hand-spun cotton candy.</p> <div class="cms-placeholder-content-video"></div> <p>Of course, it wouldn’t be a de-stressing event without furry friends, and the Day of Play provides plenty. A mini petting zoo is set up complete with baby goats, rabbits, chicks, ducklings, and pigs, while Puppy Lab supplies therapy dogs.</p> <p>According to Jennifer B. Smith, assistant director of the Campus Activities Complex, the MIT Day of Play is held at the end of the semester because “so much of MIT is about hard work with stressful academics and a fast-paced, intense atmosphere. MIT Day of Play is a couple of hours of just fun and a break from this experience to help students recharge and refocus.”</p> <p>MIT Day of Play was started in 2015, after a particularly stressful year. Smith explained, “It came from the programming board comprised of students in the Office of Multicultural Programs: P.E.A.C.E - Programming for Education and Advocacy of Cross Cultural Exchange. Staff were recruited to brainstorm and help with the logistics. The 2014-2015 year was particularly intense, and many students felt discouraged and exhausted. They indicated that they just wanted a time to kick back, enjoy themselves, and play.”</p> <p>The <a href="" target="_blank">2018 MIT Day of Play</a> was held on the afternon of May 18 and was free and open to all MIT community members.</p> MIT Day of Play petting zooPhoto: DSL CommunicationsStudent life, Students, Community, Mental health Featured video: Engineering joy Graduating senior Izzy Lloyd tells us about her day — and the story of a rich, multifaceted career at MIT. Wed, 30 May 2018 13:20:00 -0400 MIT News Office <div class="cms-placeholder-content-video"></div> <p>MIT senior Isabel “Izzy” Lloyd will graduate this spring with not only a degree in mechanical engineering, but with the pleasure of knowing she accomplished a goal she set for herself as a freshman: to impact those around her in a truly positive way.</p> <p>Lloyd has worn many hats during her MIT career — from captivating audiences with her a cappella group The Chorallaries, to helping Parkinson’s patients with a device that helps manage tremors, to spreading a simple message of compassion and kindness by spearheading the TMYAD (“Tell Me About Your Day”) campaign. To Lloyd, the MIT experience is as rich in its human interactions and encounters as it is in discoveries in the realms of engineering and technology.</p> <p>“No question, you come here, you’re going to have great times, you’re going to have bad times,” she says. “But through it all, this community’s got you. And if you don’t believe that, I’m sitting here, right now telling you that I’ve got you… It’s going to be OK.”</p> <p><em>Submitted by: Carolyn Blais </em>|<em> Video by: Lillie Paquette </em>| <em>4 min, 58 sec</em></p> MIT senior Izzy Lloyd’s time at MIT has included product design, music, and launching the far-reaching “TMAYD” campaign.Photo: Lillie Paquette/MIT School of EngineeringFeatured video, Students, Undergraduate, Student life, Mechanical engineering, Mental health, Community, Diversity and inclusion, School of Engineering A passion for service Tchelet Segev, a senior in civil and environmental engineering, is making a better world at MIT and beyond through leadership and service. Mon, 21 May 2018 15:55:00 -0400 Maisie O’Brien | MindHandHeart Initiative <p>Tchelet Segev loves walking down the Infinite Corridor, the tenth of a mile stretch of hallway connecting MIT’s main campus buildings. It is a chance to see friends and professors, and it has the quintessential active and engaged MIT vibe that she will miss after graduating this spring.</p> <p>Segev has worked hard to support this sense of community, serving in leadership positions on numerous boards, committees, and student organizations. While completing both her BS and MEng in civil and environmental engineering in four years, Segev has acted as the chair of the Undergraduate Association (UA) Special Projects Committee, co-chair of the UA Student Support and Wellness Committee, and vice president of the <a href="">Class Awareness Support and Equality</a> (CASE) student organization.&nbsp;</p> <p>As part of the UA and CASE, Segev helped to spearhead a survey that uncovered food insecurity on campus, and in response joined the <a href="">Accessing Resources Coalition</a>, a group of students and administrators working to connect low- and middle-income students to essential resources on and off campus.</p> <p>She has also worked to support her fellow students one-on-one, serving as a member of the&nbsp;<a href="">Peer Ears</a>&nbsp;residence-based mental health support network&nbsp;for two years and acting as the group’s co-president her sophomore year. Students who participate in Peer Ears are trained by clinicians from <a href="">MIT Medical’s Mental Health and Counseling Department</a> to recognize classmates in distress, support others’ mental health, and help members of the MIT community feel cared about.&nbsp;</p> <p>Segev has also served in an advisory capacity to the <a href="">MindHandHeart</a> initiative, a coalition of students, faculty, and staff working to make MIT a more welcoming, inclusive, and healthy place. She was recognized at the <a href="">MIT Awards Convocation</a> on May 10 for advancing community life at MIT and given the Laya Wiesner and William L. Stewart, Jr. Awards. CASE was also recognized with the Bridge Builder Group Award.</p> <p>“I care about people, and that drives how I spend my academic and non-academic time,” Segev says. “It’s really important to me to do what I can to support those around me.”</p> <p>During her time at MIT, Segev has seen a shift in students’ perception of mental health issues. “I think people are more and more comfortable talking about wellness and mental health topics, which are still a bit taboo, but having these conversations is really important to encourage help-seeking.”</p> <p>One of Segev’s most rewarding activities has been founding <a href="">Tea with Teachers</a> with her friends Sina Booeshagi ’17, Nicholas Curtis, and Melissa Cao. Tea With Teachers is a weekly YouTube series where students interview faculty members about their lives outside of the classroom. Chancellor Cynthia Barnhart, Vice Chancellor Ian Waitz, and Institute Professor Robert Langer have all appeared on the series.</p> <p>“I’ve had people tell me that they almost go and wave to a professor in the hall, then realize they don’t know who the professor is — they’ve only seen them on Tea with Teachers,” says Segev. “It’s just inspirational seeing faculty members in a new light. Not only are they superstars, but they’re also completely normal like me. They have interesting hobbies and foods they won’t eat — it makes professors seem more approachable.”</p> <p>In the classroom and through her internships, Segev has coupled her drive to help other people with her passion for the natural environment.&nbsp;For her master’s thesis, she is working with the <a href="">Center for Environmental Health Sciences</a>, the <a href="">MIT Superfund Research Program</a>, and the Passamaquoddy, a Native American tribe, to analyze the water quality and associated health risks in a region of northeast Maine. As part of this project, Segev has led community meetings and worked with local residents to collect and test water samples.</p> <p>She has also worked on environmental issues on an international scale, inspired by her peers in <a href="">iHouse (International Development House)</a>, a residential community comprised of students with an interest in international development and service. She worked on a rainwater harvesting program in Mexico City and on a wastewater management project in India through <a href="">MISTI India</a>. Last summer, she participated in the <a href="">MIT Washington Summer Internship&nbsp;Program</a> and interned at the World Bank.</p> <p>“One of the biggest problems we’re facing in the world right now is focusing on the short term instead of the long term,” Segev says. “This is impacting the environment in all political climates. We’re looking to short-term energy solutions and wreaking environmental havoc without considering the impact on future generations.”</p> <p>Considering what can be done to address environmental degradation, Segev reflects, “Part of it is raising awareness and changing individual habits, but another part is having more scientists and engineers involved with policymaking.”</p> <p>Segev aims to be a part of the solution to our current environmental crisis, and was recently chosen as a finalist for the <a href="">Presidential Management Fellows</a> program with the federal government, through which she aims to work as an environmental engineer in policy.</p> <p>Continuing the compassionate and environmentally-minded work she began at MIT, Tchelet says of her future: “My dream is to become the first female UN Secretary General. I want to work on the world’s most pressing environmental challenges, while making sure the voices of local communities are heard in larger discussions.”</p> “I care about people, and that drives how I spend my academic and non-academic time,” says Tchelet Segev. “It’s really important to me to do what I can to support those around me.”Photo: Maisie O'BrienCommunity, Students, Undergraduate, Student life, MindHandHeart, Mental health, Profile, Civil and environmental engineering, School of Engineering, MISTI Sprouting greenery and community A hydroponic gardening system is bringing fresh vegetables to the halls of MacGregor House. Thu, 29 Mar 2018 15:00:01 -0400 Kollin Wasserlein | MindHandHeart Initiative <p>MacGregor House, situated between the Charles River and the MIT soccer fields, is a dorm known for its strong sense of community. Suites of the dormitory (called "entries") each have their own personalities, and the people who live within them often consider each other family. Part of their togetherness stems from the fact that MacGregor is a cook-for-yourself dorm. Students share communal kitchen space and come together to cook and eat dinner most nights of the week.</p> <p>Even though residents enjoy cooking for themselves, when the academic and extracurricular commitments of a full MIT semester kick-in, free time to shop for fresh produce decreases.</p> <p>Rachel Weissman, a first-year student studying urban studies and planning at MIT, heads a project to grow fresh produce in the halls of MacGregor. With support from the <a href="">MindHandHeart Innovation Fund</a>, a grant program promoting wellness, community, and inclusion on campus, the project set up a seven-box hydroponic garden inside the dorm in January. This spring, MacGregor residents will be able to pick tomatoes, bib lettuce, spinach, parsley, and basil from the boxes.</p> <p>In addition to providing fresh vegetables, the project offers a healthy stress-reliever for the more than 15 students involved in its creation. “There’s a component of gardening which is relaxing on its own,” says Weissman. “We wouldn’t have been able to do it without the MindHandHeart Innovation Fund.”</p> <p>The group hopes to expand the garden, and the participation among residents of MacGregor. “I’d just like to give a big thank you to the heads of house,” Weissman says. “We’re glad to have this opportunity, and we’re excited to see where it goes as more people get involved in the future.”</p> <p>Sponsored by the <a href="">Office of the Chancellor</a> and <a href="">MIT Medical</a>, the MindHandHeart Innovation Fund is accepting applications through March 31.</p> Rachel Weissman, a first-year student studying urban studies and planning at MIT, led the effort to install garden boxes in MacGregor House.Photo: Maisie O'BrienCommunity, Student life, Mental health, MindHandHeart Lending mind, hand, and heart Senior Isabella Pecorari is building supportive communities at MIT and beyond. Fri, 16 Mar 2018 00:00:00 -0400 Fatima Husain | MIT News correspondent <p>MIT senior Isabella Pecorari embarked on a path to medicine at a young age, beginning with a grade-school fascination with biology.</p> <p>“I could not get enough,” Pecorari says, recalling how she used to stay after her biology class and ask questions from lists she wrote. “It was ridiculous. There was just no stopping me!”</p> <p>Since the sixth grade, Pecorari has intended to develop her interest in biology to help others in a medical setting. When it came time to attend college, she knew MIT would be a good fit. “I knew that if I was going to be premed, I wanted to have a supportive environment,” Pecorari says. “I wanted to be in a team-building setting where I could work with other students through problem sets rather than struggling alone.”</p> <p>Pecorari has thrived in that environment and is now on a mission to help grow the support systems for others at MIT. As the brain and cognitive sciences major pursues a career as a physician, she aims to apply what she’s learned while helping to foster mental health and wellness in her community.</p> <p><strong>Helping others succeed</strong></p> <p>Pecorari is passionate about mental health education and providing support to fellow students in need. “People think that MIT students have everything,” Pecorari says, “but mental health is not about what you see on the outside — it's more about what's going on inside.”</p> <p>During her sophomore year, Pecorari joined Peer Ears, a student-run organization that fosters conversations about mental health and provides resources to students facing mental health crises.</p> <p>“People are often afraid to come out and ask for help because there’s such a stigma around mental health issues,” she says. Now the president of Peer Ears, Pecorari hopes to destigmatize those mental health discussions in undergraduate dorms across campus. Peer Ears representatives are trained extensively by MIT mental health clinicians on how to reach out and respond to students facing mental health crises.</p> <p>Under Pecorari’s leadership, the organization is creating a booklet for incoming freshman that presents information about mental health issues common to college students and the resources students can go to for help.</p> <p>“It allows students who might be going through a difficult time to realize that they are not alone in the way they are feeling,” Pecorari says. She hopes the booklet will be complete in time for the incoming class of 2022.</p> <p>Peer Ears also helps host dorm-wide study breaks where undergraduate students can stop by, talk to representatives, and study within a supportive atmosphere. The organization has also begun a care package program, funded by the MindHandHeart initiative, which provides food-filled care packages to students during spring final exam periods.</p> <p>“We’d set up a booth in Lobby 10 where people could stop by and make a care package for themselves or a friend,” Pecorari recalls. “It was a big concern of ours that people weren’t always eating when it was a stressful time.”</p> <p>The program kick-off was a success, and Peer Ears will hold another care package session at the end of this spring semester.</p> <p>Pecorari also works on the executive board of MIT BrainTrust, a student-run organization in which students are paired with individuals from the greater Boston area who have survived traumatic brain injuries, for meetups throughout the year.</p> <p>BrainTrust gives survivors “a buddy system — someone they can reach out to and talk to and rely on so they don’t feel alone,” Pecorari says. During her time at BrainTrust, Pecorari has invited physicians from the Boston area to host discussions during meetups, and she has curated panels discussing Alzheimer’s disease for attendees.</p> <p>Pecorari is also president of Student-Alumni Association, and she previously served as a panhellenic recruitment counselor. In addition to her classes and extracurricular activities, Pecorari has been a teaching assistant for two courses: CC.5111 (Principles of Chemical Science) and 9.00 (Introduction to Psychological Science).</p> <p><strong>Researching tomorrow’s remedies</strong></p> <p>Pecorari’s curiosity about biology led her to begin formal research when she was a high school student, working at the Hospital for Special Surgery in New York City.</p> <p>“The P.I. of the lab was at first very hesitant to bring me on board because usually you need to be at least 18 years old,” she says. “But I was persistent and I really just wanted to have the opportunity to get involved in research and see what it was all about.”</p> <p>Pecorari joined the lab at 16 and was assigned tasks such as data analysis and creating presentations. When she turned 18, she began culturing cells and learning about the medicines prescribed to patients at the hospital.</p> <p>These experiences primed her for the research-rich environment at MIT. During her sophomore year, Pecorari joined the lab of Institute Professor Ann Graybiel to learn how to develop microelectrodes that detect dopamine levels in animal brains. Pecorari liked the application of the work: It could be used to develop treatments for and understand the mechanisms behind Parkinson’s disease.</p> <p>Currently, Pecorari works in the lab of Poitras Chair Professor of Neuroscience Guoping Feng, to develop animal models for Huntington’s disease that can be used to test possible treatments.</p> <p>“It can often take months or even years to produce results you want in research,” Pecorari says. “I’m really appreciative of the opportunity to understand what goes on behind the scenes and to know that the work I’m doing today, no matter how small a part, can possibly help someone in the future. That’s what really drives me.”</p> <p><strong>Determination, strength, and looking forward</strong></p> <p>Pecorari is also an avid equestrian and has been riding since her childhood. When she was 11, she began to train a 3-year-old horse. The training took intense patience and determination; when Pecorari began, the horse wasn’t even used to wearing a bridle.</p> <p>“It took a full two years before I could get a ride on him,” Pecorari recalls. She began to successfully compete with the horse in local and national competitions — a testament to her hard work.</p> <p>During her sophomore year of college, Pecorari decided to train another horse.</p> <p>“I knew that medical school was in the future and had the sense that [training a horse] takes up so much time and commitment. I probably wouldn’t have the opportunity to do this at a later date,” Pecorari says. “So I just went for it.”</p> <p>At the beginning of the summer before her junior year, Pecorari was thrown from the horse. “He threw me from his back, trampled me, and broke my back in five places,” Pecorari says, “so that summer did not turn out as expected.”</p> <p>During the intensive healing process, Pecorari experienced the role of a patient, which gave her a new view on medicine.</p> <p>“I gained an understanding of what it was like to go through something that’s really scary, uncertain, and painful,” she says. “Even though this was a really traumatic experience, I tried to remain optimistic and to think of the benefits that could come out of it and how I could possibly use my experience to help people.”</p> <p>Pecorari intends to apply that outlook to the rest of her time at MIT and to her future in medicine, supporting others and fostering community along the way.</p> MIT senior Isabella Pecorari embarked on a path to medicine at a young age, beginning with a grade-school fascination with biology.Image: Jake BelcherProfile, Students, Undergraduate, School of Science, Brain and cognitive sciences, Health, Mental health, Medicine, Women, Women in STEM, Student life, Volunteering, outreach, public service, Community Lifting the veil on &quot;valence,&quot; brain study reveals roots of desire and dislike Researchers map the amygdala&#039;s distinct but diverse and dynamic neighborhoods where feelings are assigned. Tue, 23 Jan 2018 13:05:01 -0500 David Orenstein | Picower Institute for Learning and Memory <p>The amygdala is a tiny hub of emotions where in 2016 a team led by MIT neuroscientist Kay Tye found specific populations of neurons that assign good or bad feelings, or “valence,” to experience. Learning to associate pleasure with a tasty food, or aversion to a foul-tasting one, is a primal function and key to survival.</p> <p>In a new study in <em>Cell Reports</em>, Tye’s team at the Picower Institute for Learning and Memory returns to the amygdala for an unprecedentedly deep dive into its inner workings. Focusing on a particular section called the basolateral amygdala, the researchers show how valence-processing circuitry is organized and how key neurons in those circuits interact with others. What they reveal is a region with distinct but diverse and dynamic neighborhoods where valence is sorted out by both connecting with other brain regions and sparking cross-talk within the basolateral amygdala itself.</p> <p>“Perturbations of emotional valence processing is at the core of many mental health disorders,” says Tye, associate professor of neuroscience at the Picower Institute&nbsp;of Learning and Memory and the Department of Brain and Cognitive Sciences. “Anxiety and addiction, for example, may be an imbalance or a misassignment of positive or negative valence with different stimuli.”</p> <p>Despite the importance of valence assignment in both healthy behavior and psychiatric disorders, neuroscientists don’t know how the process really works. The new study therefore sought to expose how the neurons and circuits are laid out and how they interact.</p> <p><strong>Bitter, sweet</strong></p> <p>To conduct the study, lead author Anna Beyeler, a former postdoc in Tye’s lab and currently a faculty member at the University of Bordeaux in France, led the group in training mice to associate appealing sucrose drops with one tone and bitter quinine drops with another. They recorded the response of different neurons in the basolateral amygdala when the tones were played to see which ones were associated with the conditioned learned valence of the different tastes. They labeled those key neurons associated with valence encoding and engineered them to become responsive to pulses of light. When the researchers then activated them, they recorded the electrical activity not only of those neurons but also of many of their neighbors to see what influence their activity had in local circuits.</p> <p>They also found, labeled, and made similar measurements among neurons that became active on the occasion that a mouse actually licked the bitter quinine. With this additional step, they could measure not only the neural activity associated with the learned valence of the bitter taste but also that associated with the innate reaction to the actual experience.</p> <p>Later in the lab, they used tracing technologies to highlight three different kinds of neurons more fully, visualizing them in distinct colors depending on which other region they projected their tendrilous axons to connect with. Neurons that project to a region called the nucleus accumbens are predominantly associated with positive valence, and those that connect to the central amygdala are mainly associated with negative valence. They found that neurons uniquely activated by the unconditioned experience of actually tasting the quinine tended to project to the ventral hippocampus.</p> <p>In all, the team mapped over 1,600 neurons.</p> <p>To observe the three-dimensional configuration of these distinct neuron populations, the researchers turned the surrounding brain tissues clear using a technique called CLARITY, invented by Kwanghun Chung, assistant professor of chemical engineering and neuroscience and a colleague in the Picower Institute.</p> <p><strong>Neighborhoods without fences</strong></p> <p>Beyeler, Tye, and their co-authors were able to make several novel observations about the inner workings of the basolateral amygdala’s valence circuitry.</p> <p>One finding was that the different functional populations of neurons tended to cluster together in neighborhoods, or “hotspots.” For example, picturing the almond-shaped amygdala as standing upright on its fat bottom, the neurons projecting to the central amygdala tended to cluster toward the point at the top and then on the right toward the bottom. Meanwhile the neurons that projected to the nucleus accumbens tended to run down the middle, and the ones that projected to the hippocampus were clustered toward the bottom on the opposite side from the central amygdala projectors.</p> <p>Despite these trends, the researchers also noted that the neighborhoods were hardly monolithic. Instead, neurons of different types frequently intermingled creating a diversity where the predominant neuron type was never far from at least some representatives of the other types.</p> <p>Meanwhile, their electrical activity data revealed that the different types exerted different degrees of influence over their neighbors. For example, neurons projecting to the central amygdala, in keeping with their association with negative valence, had a very strong inhibitory effect on neighbors, while nucleus accumbens projectors had a smaller influence that was more balanced between excitation and inhibition.</p> <p>Tye speculates that the intermingling of neurons of different types, including their propensity to influence each other with their activity, may provide a way for competing circuits to engage in cross-talk.</p> <p>“Perhaps the intermingling that there is might facilitate the ability of these neurons to influence each other,” says Tye.</p> <p>Notably, Tye’s research has indicated the projections the different cell types make appear immutable, but the influence those cells have over each other is flexible. The basolateral amygdala may therefore be arranged to both assign valence and negotiate it, for instance in those situations when a mouse spies some desirable cheese, but that mean cat is also nearby.</p> <p>“This helps us understand how form might give rise to function,” says Tye.</p> <p>In addition to Beyeler and Tye, the paper’s other authors are Chia-Jung Chang, Margaux Silvestre, Clementine Leveque, Praneeth Namburi, and Craig Wildes.</p> <p>Several funding sources, including the JPB Foundation, Whitehall Foundation, Klingenstein Foundation, Alfred P. Sloan Foundation, New York Stem Cell Foundation, and the National Institutes of Health provided support for the study.</p> Various 3-D views of the basolateral amygdala show the arrangement of neurons that project to the nucleus accumbens (green), the hippocampus (blue), or the central amygdala (red).School of Science, Brain and cognitive sciences, Picower Institute, Research, Neuroscience, Mental health MindHandHeart announces record number of Innovation Fund winners From indoor lawns to meditative drawing classes, the selected projects aim to make MIT a more healthy and welcoming place. Mon, 08 Jan 2018 14:00:01 -0500 Maisie O’Brien | MindHandHeart Initiative <p>The <a href="" target="_blank">MindHandHeart Innovation Fund</a> has awarded $50,848 to a record 17 projects developed by students, faculty, and staff to make the MIT community more healthy, welcoming, and inclusive. Sponsored by the Office of the Chancellor, the fund was promoted at a series of <a href="" target="_blank">study breaks</a> earlier this year and received nearly double the usual number of applications in the fall 2017 cycle.</p> <p>Awarded projects address an array of topics, including life skills, wellness, community building, enhancing academic climates, and increasing help-seeking, diversity, and inclusion. Of all 17 awarded projects, 59 percent are spearheaded by students, 12 percent are driven by faculty, and 29 percent are driven by staff members.</p> <p>Applications were reviewed by members of the MindHandHeart coalition and a review committee composed of <a href="" target="_blank">past Innovation Fund winners</a> and representatives from the Graduate Student Council, the Undergraduate Association, and MindHandHeart’s leadership team.</p> <p>“I was truly moved by the creativity, problem-solving skills, and sheer number of applications,” says Maryanne Kirkbride, MindHandHeart executive administrator. “It is a testament to the strength of the MIT community and our commitment to supporting one another. The chancellor, MIT Medical, and I are excited to see these projects progress over the spring semester.”</p> <p>A number of the newly funded Innovation Fund projects aim to build community and foster connectedness on campus. Spearheaded by the <a href="" target="_blank">Office of Minority Education</a>, The Standard is a cohort-based men of color initiative targeting first-year undergraduates. Participants will engage in workshops, guest lectures, and a range of activities designed to enhance their academic, personal, and professional success. Director of the Office of Minority Education (OME) DiOnetta Jones Crayton says of the grant, “Supporting undergraduate men of color is a priority for the OME, and we are thrilled to receive funding for The Standard from MindHandHeart to expand our efforts and reach more students in new and exciting ways.”</p> <p>Organized by <a href="" target="_blank">Mujeres Latinas</a>, the Hermanas Unidas inaugural event will bring together Latinas from across MIT to create a supportive, enduring, and inspiring community. WiSTEM Week consists of a week of events celebrating and promoting women in STEM at MIT.</p> <p>Several projects focus on building community in MIT’s academic environments. Steven G. Johnson, professor of applied mathematics, was awarded a grant to bring a Math Puzzles Pilot Event to MIT’s Department of Mathematics to create opportunities for socialization among students and faculty. Graduate student Deborah Ehrlich’s project, Continuing Conversations for Chemists, will encourage members of the Department of Chemistry to meet over lunch.&nbsp;And, graduate student Gabriela Serrato Marks’ Science Storytelling project will teach storytelling and science communication techniques to students in the Department of Earth, Atmospheric and Planetary Sciences.</p> <p>Three projects will use art as a vehicle to promote well-being and community. Artful Meditation/Draw What You See is a weekly drawing course incorporating meditation techniques led by MIT lecturer Mauricio Cordero. Organized by <a href="" target="_blank">LBGTQ@MIT</a>, Making a SPXCE to Call Home is a collaborative mural painting initiative that plans to combine canvas and digital effects in the new SPXCE Intercultural Center. Spearheaded by MIT alumna and staff member Natalia Guerrero, Studio consists of drop-in art sessions for members of the MIT community to draw, reflect, and connect with others.</p> <p>Two projects bring nature to the MIT community in innovative ways. Spearheaded by first-year Sloan student Yifan Lu, <a href="" target="_blank">Indoor Lawn</a> brought a grass installation to the Student Center to calm and entertain passersby.&nbsp;And, the MacGregor House Garden aims to set up a hydroponic gardening system that will provide vegetables for residents of MacGregor House.</p> <p>Other projects include Evaluation on the State of the Black Community at MIT, a survey and report organized by The Black Student Union assessing the state of the black community at MIT; Adulting 101, a series of financial literacy workshops for MIT students; America in Transition, a documentary series and social impact campaign that explores relationships, family, and social change from the perspective of transgender people of color across the U.S.; Postdoc REFS, a two-year pilot program aiming to train postdocs in conflict management and create an official group for postdocs to utilize their conflict management skills; <a href="" target="_blank">MIT Daybreaker</a>; and Crafternoon Sewing Circle.</p> <p>To date, MindHandHeart has supported 57 Innovation Fund projects, 11 of which are now self-sustaining. Past Innovation Fund winners include the <a href="" target="_blank">Puppy Lab</a>, <a href="" target="_blank">Random Acts of Kindness (RAK) Week</a>, <a href="" target="_blank">My Sister’s Keeper</a>, and <a href="" target="_blank">MIT Connect</a>. The <a href="" target="_blank">MindHandHeart Innovation Fund</a> will be accepting applications from March 1-30, 2018.</p> Fall 2017 MindHandHeart Innovation Fund winnersPhoto: Maisie O'BrienMindHandHeart, Community, Mental health, Student life, Chancellor, MIT Medical, Grants, Students, Faculty, Staff, Campus services Wellness Fair showcases healthy campus resources More than 400 students participated in the event, which connected them to more than two dozen wellness-related campus organizations. Wed, 06 Dec 2017 17:40:00 -0500 Nicole Cooper | Division of Student Life <p>MIT’s MindHandHeart coalition and the Division of Student Life recently hosted its annual Wellness Fair in the Zesiger Sports and Fitness Center, featuring more than two dozen&nbsp;wellness-related campus resources for students to learn more about.</p> <p>To encourage students to learn about all the resources that MIT has to offer, each participant received a student passbook. The objective was to collect a sticker from each office listed to claim a Wellness Warrior T-shirt. By the end of the night, more than&nbsp;400 student passbooks were turned in.</p> <div class="cms-placeholder-content-video"></div> <p>Each year, the Wellness Fair seeks&nbsp;to shine light on the number of resources available to students on campus. Whether they are experiencing academic stress, health issues, or other personal struggles, students can find support from groups like LBGTQ+ Services, Student Disability Services, and Student Support Services.&nbsp;Group representatives interacted with students, answered their questions, and handed out giveaways like candy and T-shirts.</p> <p>The fair even included a photo booth with goofy accessories for students to wear in their pictures. Free smoothies, raffles, massages, and Camelback water bottles added to the excitement.</p> <p>“I think it’s important to know that there’s support for you because it’s very easy to get narrow-minded when you’re doing all this work, especially when you get off track and you kind of forget that there’s things out there to help you,” one student attendee said.</p> <p>Many who attended the event left feeling enlightened and supported. One student named&nbsp;Erica&nbsp;pointed out that it’s vital for students to know that they have a support system within the Institute.</p> <p>“I think that MIT can be pretty stressful sometimes,” she said.&nbsp;“So it’s important to know that you have a really strong support network and that there are so many different groups and resources on campus for you.”</p> Students attending the 2017 Wellness Fair show off their swag from different campus organizations.Photo courtesy of the Division of Student Life.Undergraduate, Students, Student life, MindHandHeart, Community, Campus services, Mental health Where the grass is greener Surprise indoor lawn appears in the Student Center to calm and entertain. Fri, 01 Dec 2017 17:15:01 -0500 Maisie O’Brien | MindHandHeart Initiative <p>As temperatures drop, the last leaves fall from the trees, and final exams loom, MIT students were surprised to find a nature-themed installation on the first floor of the Student Center on Monday. A temporary lawn was placed under the couches with support from <a href="" target="_blank">Campus Activities Complex</a> and <a href="" target="_blank">MindHandHeart</a> to create a sense of calm.</p> <p>The indoor lawn was spearheaded by Yifan Lu, a first-year MIT Sloan School of Management student who was inspired by a similar installation at her alma mater Cornell University. “Seeing the grass at Cornell really struck me,” said Lu. “It was such a random and fun idea. When I got to MIT, it felt similar to Cornell in that you have a lot of stressed students and it gets really cold, so I thought it would be great to bring it to MIT.”</p> <p>On the second day of the installation, MindHandHeart sponsored a <a href=";album_id=516412885395296" target="_blank">study break</a> with free cupcakes and hot chocolate that was attended by over 200 people. In addition to the desserts, MindHandHeart distributed pamphlets describing support resources on campus and ways to help peers in distress.</p> <p>Lu described the study break saying: “I’m thrilled that people came and enjoyed the lawn. They didn’t just grab a cupcake and leave. People were reflecting on why this is happening and sitting down to relax. Having spent a few hours on the lawn over the past couple days, I’ve watched the surprise on students’ faces and their smiles have made me feel really good.”</p> <p>Lu is using a suggestion box to collect anonymous feedback on the installation. One student wrote: “I'm from Colorado, and one of the first things I've noticed since being here is the lack of open grass and parks. Being at this indoor lawn brought back an element of home I didn't realize I needed.” Another student commented: “I cannot put into words how much I loved the indoor lawn and the happiness that it brought me. I love nature, and the sad and gloomy weather, trees, and early sunsets have a huge impact on my mood. Please make this a frequent thing!”</p> <p>Speaking on the impact of the lawn, Lu said: “There are numerous studies that demonstrate how elements of nature, even if they’re indoors and very subtle, can increase attention capacity, lower stress and anxiety levels, and encourage a positive mood. It’s okay if students don’t consciously recognize that — it just makes me happy to see them enjoying the grass and relaxing a little bit.”</p> Yifan Lu, a first-year MIT Sloan student, founded the indoor lawn installation at the MIT Student Center.Photo: Maisie O'BrienCommunity, Student life, Arts, Mental health, MindHandHeart Stress can lead to risky decisions Neuroscientists find chronic stress skews decisions toward higher-risk options. Thu, 16 Nov 2017 11:59:59 -0500 Anne Trafton | MIT News Office <p>Making decisions is not always easy, especially when choosing between two options that have both positive and negative elements, such as deciding between a job with a high salary but long hours, and a lower-paying job that allows for more leisure time.</p> <p>MIT neuroscientists have now discovered that making decisions in this type of situation, known as a cost-benefit conflict, is dramatically affected by chronic stress. In a study of mice, they found that stressed animals were far likelier to choose high-risk, high-payoff options.</p> <p>The researchers also found that impairments of a specific brain circuit underlie this abnormal decision making, and they showed that they could restore normal behavior by manipulating this circuit. If a method for tuning this circuit in humans were developed, it could help patients with disorders such as depression, addiction, and anxiety, which often feature poor decision-making.</p> <p>“One exciting thing is that by doing this very basic science, we found a microcircuit of neurons in the striatum that we could manipulate to reverse the effects of stress on this type of decision making. This to us is extremely promising, but we are aware that so far these experiments are in rats and mice,” says Ann Graybiel, an Institute Professor at MIT and member of the McGovern Institute for Brain Research.</p> <p>Graybiel is the senior author of the paper, which appears in <em>Cell</em> on Nov. 16. The paper’s lead author is Alexander Friedman, a McGovern Institute research scientist.</p> <p><strong>Hard decisions</strong></p> <p>In 2015, Graybiel, Friedman, and their colleagues first identified the brain circuit involved in decision making that involves cost-benefit conflict. The circuit begins in the medial prefrontal cortex, which is responsible for mood control, and extends into clusters of neurons called striosomes, which are located in the striatum, a region associated with habit formation, motivation, and reward reinforcement.</p> <p>In that study, the researchers trained rodents to run a maze in which they had to choose between one option that included highly concentrated chocolate milk, which they like, along with bright light, which they don’t like, and an option with dimmer light but weaker chocolate milk. By inhibiting the connection between cortical neurons and striosomes, using a technique known as optogenetics, they found that they could transform the rodents’ preference for lower-risk, lower-payoff choices to a preference for bigger payoffs despite their bigger costs.</p> <p>In the new study, the researchers performed a similar experiment without optogenetic manipulations. Instead, they exposed the rodents to a short period of stress every day for two weeks.</p> <p>Before experiencing stress, normal rats and mice would choose to run toward the maze arm with dimmer light and weaker chocolate milk about half the time. The researchers gradually increased the concentration of chocolate milk found in the dimmer side, and as they did so, the animals began choosing that side more frequently.</p> <p>However, when chronically stressed rats and mice were put in the same situation, they continued to choose the bright light/better chocolate milk side even as the chocolate milk concentration greatly increased on the dimmer side. This was the same behavior the researchers saw in rodents that had the prefrontal cortex-striosome circuit disrupted optogenetically.</p> <p>“The result is that the animal ignores the high cost and chooses the high reward,” Friedman says.</p> <p>The findings help to explain how stress contributes to substance abuse and may worsen mental disorders, says Amy Arnsten, a professor of neuroscience and psychology at the Yale University School of Medicine, who was not involved in the research.</p> <p>“Stress is ubiquitous, for both humans and animals, and its effects on brain and behavior are of central importance to the understanding of both normal function and neuropsychiatric disease. It is both pernicious and ironic that chronic stress can lead to impulsive action; in many clinical cases, such as drug addiction, impulsivity is likely to worsen patterns of behavior that produce the stress in the first place, inducing a vicious cycle,” Arnsten wrote in a commentary accompanying the <em>Cell</em> paper, co-authored by Daeyeol Lee and Christopher Pittenger of the Yale University School of Medicine.</p> <p><strong>Circuit dynamics</strong></p> <p>The researchers believe that this circuit integrates information about the good and bad aspects of possible choices, helping the brain to produce a decision. Normally, when the circuit is turned on, neurons of the prefrontal cortex activate certain neurons called high-firing interneurons, which then suppress striosome activity.</p> <p>When the animals are stressed, these circuit dynamics shift and the cortical neurons fire too late to inhibit the striosomes, which then become overexcited. This results in abnormal decision making.</p> <p>“Somehow this prior exposure to chronic stress controls the integration of good and bad,” Graybiel says. “It’s as though the animals had lost their ability to balance excitation and inhibition in order to settle on reasonable behavior.”</p> <p>Once this shift occurs, it remains in effect for months, the researchers found. However, they were able to restore normal decision making in the stressed mice by using optogenetics to stimulate the high-firing interneurons, thereby suppressing the striosomes. This suggests that the prefronto-striosome circuit remains intact following chronic stress and could potentially be susceptible to manipulations that would restore normal behavior in human patients whose disorders lead to abnormal decision making.</p> <p>“This state change could be reversible, and it’s possible in the future that you could target these interneurons and restore the excitation-inhibition balance,” Friedman says.</p> <p>The research was funded by the National Institutes of Health/National Institute for Mental Health, the CHDI Foundation, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency and the U.S. Army Research Office, the Bachmann-Strauss Dystonia and Parkinson Foundation, the William N. and Bernice E. Bumpus Foundation, Michael Stiefel, the Saks Kavanaugh Foundation, and John Wasserlein and Lucille Braun.</p> MIT neuroscientists have discovered that making decisions, especially when choosing between two options that have both positive and negative elements, can be dramatically affected by chronic stress. Illustration: Christine Daniloff/MITResearch, Behavior, Mental health, Optogenetics, Brain and cognitive sciences, McGovern Institute, School of Science, Neuroscience, National Institutes of Health (NIH), Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) Spreading kindness far and wide Senior Bettina Arkhurst, founder of Random Acts of Kindness Week, is making a better world at MIT. Wed, 19 Jul 2017 17:45:01 -0400 Maisie O’Brien | MindHandHeart Initiative <p>Bettina Arkhurst comes from a large, tight-knit family. Her relatives hail from across the U.S., Canada, Europe, Australia, and Ghana. They fly to celebrate birthdays, graduations, and family reunions, and support one another during difficult times.&nbsp;</p> <p>Coming to MIT, Arkhurst quickly settled in and made friends, but she worried about her classmates who lacked the strong social ties she had always known and valued. “I felt there was a need for more empathy and connection on campus,” she said. “If someone didn’t find a friend group or feel a sense of belonging in their classes, then their college experience could be isolating, and MIT is not a place to go through alone.”</p> <p>During her sophomore year, Arkhurst joined the <a href="">MindHandHeart</a> Initiative as a co-chair in the <a href="">Connectedness Working Group</a>, and worked alongside fellow students, faculty, and staff members on projects to make MIT a healthier, more welcoming place.&nbsp;</p> <p>“It was serendipitous how MindHandHeart was just beginning and I had been thinking of starting a program to positively impact our campus culture,” she said. “The goals of MindHandHeart aligned with my belief that peoples’ well-being needs to be a top priority in our academic, residential, and social environments.”</p> <p>In the second semester of her sophomore year, Arkhurst and her friend and classmate Cory Johnson applied for and were awarded funds to pilot <a href="">Random Act of Kindness (RAK) Week</a> through the MindHandHeart <a href="">Innovation Fund</a>. Their idea was to encourage small, spontaneous acts of generosity and meaningful moments of connection through loosely planned events and “RAK hacks.”</p> <p>The first RAK Week began with RAK-themed goodie bags, open houses offering treats, and lots of flowers, bubbles, free hugs, and giveaways. Supported by the MindHandHeart volunteer coalition, along with members of the <a href="">Delta Phi Epsilon</a><a href=""> Sorority</a> and <a href="">Nu Delta Fraternity</a>, the event spread across campus. “I knew RAK Week had really taken off when a classmate gave me a flower and began explaining ‘Random Acts of Kindness Week’ to me,” said Arkhurst.</p> <p>This year’s RAK Week was supported by the Connectedness Working Group and involved the participation of even more academic departments and centers. The <a href="">Department of Chemistry</a>, for example, held a series of RAK events, as did MIT Libraries and the Women and Gender Studies Program. Students enjoyed free 10-minute chair massages, care packages, and homemade pastries.&nbsp;</p> <p>Arkhurst took the lead in coordinating RAK Week volunteers and distributing supplies, like lumber, cake mix, and craft materials. And she did all of this while balancing a demanding mechanical engineering course load, a teaching assistant position in a Physics I class, and roles with <a href="">MIT’s gospel choir</a>, <a href="">Experimental Study Group</a>, and the <a href="">CASE (Class Awareness, Support and Equality)</a> student group.</p> <p>Both RAK Weeks culminated in an open mic night in the Media Lab. “This year’s event was called ‘Let’s Talk About It’ and was run by Delta Phi Epsilon,” Arkhurst explains. “It was a forum for students to come on stage and share whatever was on their minds or in their hearts. Some people gave advice, others shared challenges, or performed spoken word. It was a chance to reflect, feel supported, and realize that everyone you pass in the halls has a story and struggles, and that you’re not alone.”</p> <p>Arkhurst has been recognized for her role in founding and leading RAK Week, and has been granted a number of awards, including the <a href="">Bridge Builder Award</a>, <a href="">Laya Wiesner Award</a>, and the<a href=""> Emerging Leader Award</a>.</p> <p>Arkhurst and the MindHandHeart initiative plan to hold RAK Week again next year and expect it to reach even more departments and centers. Reflecting on her leadership roles within MindHandHeart and RAK Week, Arkhurst, now a rising senior, says: “It’s been really rewarding seeing people from different parts of the MIT community coming together to support mental health. If there wasn’t for MindHandHeart, I don’t think there would be much of an outlet for people who want to apply their creativity to support well-being on campus.”</p> <p>This summer, Arkhurst is applying her leadership and organizational skills working as a project management intern at IBM in North Carolina. “I’m enjoying it a lot,” says Arkhurst. “I’m working within IBM’s real estate department to create tools that streamline internal processes and push projects forward. I’ve also had the opportunity to use quite a bit of computer science, which has been rewarding, though I’m definitely a mechanical engineer at heart.”</p> <p>Heading into her senior year, Arkhurst is uncertain of where her degree is taking her, but — unsurprisingly and admirably — she plans to “create and innovate with the goal of helping other people.”&nbsp;</p> Bettina Arkhurst, MIT senior and RAK Week founder Photo: Maisie O'BrienCommunity, Students, Student life, MindHandHeart, Mental health, Profile MindHandHeart announces the newest round of Innovation Fund winners Eleven projects have been selected to bring creative wellness and mental health programming to campus. Mon, 15 May 2017 15:45:01 -0400 Maisie O’Brien | MindHandHeart Initiative <p>MindHandHeart has announced its newest <a href="" target="_blank">Innovation Fund</a> winners, tapping into the MIT community’s passionate hearts, dedicated hands, and talented minds. Sponsored by the <a href="" target="_blank">Office of the Chancellor</a> and <a href="" target="_blank">MIT Medical</a>, this was the <a href="" target="_blank">fifth round</a> of the Innovation Fund, which provides grants to projects championing wellness, community, and mental health awareness on campus.</p> <p>The fund has awarded $33,581 to 11 new proposals selected from a pool of 29 applicants. Applications were reviewed by MindHandHeart’s <a href="" target="_blank">working group</a> members as well as a selection committee comprised of representatives from the Undergraduate Association and Graduate Student Council. Awarded projects will focus on a range of topics from suicide prevention to a 24-hour community building challenge to a video series profiling faculty members.</p> <p>“The newest round of Innovation Fund winners speaks to the creativity and entrepreneurial spirit of the MIT community,” said MindHandHeart Executive Administrator <a href="" target="_blank">Maryanne Kirkbride</a>. “I was moved by each of the applications and their dedication to advancing well-being, and I was thrilled to see that over half of the awarded projects were student-driven.”</p> <p>First-year student Rosanna Zhang was awarded funding to spearhead “Project 24,” a grassroots challenge encouraging MIT students to initiate conversations with six people in 24 hours. Zhang describes her motivation for starting the project saying: “Spontaneous conversations give people the opportunity to connect with others on campus and be exposed to different perspectives. They can also help to normalize discussing challenges and show students that help-seeking is not as difficult as they had imagined. I hope “Project 24” will help to create a friendly and compassionate community where people don’t lose sight of their dreams and feelings.”</p> <p>Another student-led Innovation Fund winner, “We are MIT,” consists of a video platform where students can submit short videos on a particular theme and compete for prizes. “We are MIT” founder Katrine Tjoelsen, a grad student in electrical engineering and computer science, says: “The project will provide a counter narrative to the idea of the ‘MIT bubble’ and show that our community is full of interesting people with unique intellectual interests, political perspectives, and crazy hobbies. We hope students will create and share videos full of positive emotion that will contribute to a cultural shift towards valuing joy and well-being.”</p> <p>Director of physical education <a href="" target="_blank">Carrie Sampson Moore</a> was awarded a grant to pilot two classes addressing the holistic health needs of MIT undergraduate students. The “Healthy Relationships and Healthy Body Fitness Course” is designed to make students better informed about the differences between healthy and abusive relationships, and reduce risky sexual behavior. The “Meditation/Fitness” course will promote wellness through meditation and other techniques proven to reduce stress and build resiliency.</p> <p><a href="" target="_blank">Rheinila Fernandes</a>, a psychiatrist in MIT Medical’s <a href="" target="_blank">Mental Health and Counseling</a> department, and Naomi Carton, associate dean of <a href="" target="_blank">Residential Life and Dining</a>, were awarded a grant to pilot “Wellness Buddies.” The program consists of a weekly dinner seminar where students are provided with life skills instruction and paired with a “wellness buddy” whom they can meet with to set goals and gauge progress. Each session is part of a neuroscience-based curriculum designed to educate students about how healthy nutrition, exercise, sleep hygiene, mindfulness, and growth mindset can improve academic performance.</p> <p>“Often students will let self-care fall by the wayside during busy times,” says Fernandes. “It is our hope that creating a community and structure around self-care activities will help students cope with stress and function more effectively throughout the semester.”&nbsp;</p> <p>Other projects funded this cycle include: “Neurodiversity at MIT and Design for Everyone,” a panel discussion exploring the experiences of neuroatypical students and barriers to inclusion; “Post-MIT: An MIT Story of Sticky Situations and the Stickies that Helped us Stick it Out,” an event showcasing how two graduate students used friendship, humor, and sticky notes to overcome adversity; “Pre-finals Care Packages,” the distribution of care packages during finals period; “The S Word,” a film screening about individuals impacted by suicide and a group discussion moderated by staff from Mental Health and Counseling; “American Sign Language (ASL) and Deaf Culture Classes for MIT,” classes and social events related to ASL; and “<a href="" target="_blank">Tea with Teachers</a>,” a student-led video series aiming to bridge the gap between students and professors.</p> <p>To date, the fund has awarded over $130,000 to 40 projects that have impacted the MIT community in countless ways. 11 projects have become self-sustaining and have found a permanent home on campus, like <a href="" target="_self">My Sister’s Keeper</a> and the <a href="" target="_self">Puppy Lab</a>, and 16 are ongoing with support from MindHandHeart.</p> <p>Previous projects funded through the Innovation Fund include: <a href="" target="_blank">You Belong @ MIT</a>, a three-phase initiative promoting academic belonging organized by the <a href="" target="_blank">Teaching and Learning Lab</a>; the <a href="" target="_self">OpenMind::OpenArt</a> project, an art studio and public gallery raising awareness of mental health issues on campus; <a href="" target="_self">MIT Connect</a>, a digital platform pairing like-minded members of the MIT community for platonic, one-on-one lunches; and “<a href="" target="_blank">Portraits of Resilience</a>,” a book capturing MIT community members’ personal stories of overcoming adversity, curated by Professor <a href="" target="_blank">Daniel Jackson</a>.</p> <p>To learn more about how MIT faculty, students, and staff members can apply for grants of up to $10,000, visit the <a href="" target="_blank">MindHandHeart Innovation Fund</a> page. For more information on upcoming events organized by Innovation Fund winners, visit the MindHandHeart <a href="" target="_blank">events calendar</a>.</p> Spring 2017 Innovation Fund winners gather at a training session organized by MindHandHeart.Photo: Maisie O'BrienMindHandHeart, MIT Medical, Community, Mental health, Student life, Students, Faculty, Staff, Grants, Campus services, Chancellor You belong @ MIT A new initiative developed by the Teaching and Learning Lab is designed to increase students’ sense of academic belonging. Fri, 12 May 2017 14:10:01 -0400 Maisie O’Brien | MindHandHeart Initiative <p>“Wait a minute… I’m the only female in this class!” realizes the engineering student in the cartoon, sandwiched beside her two male classmates. She shakes nervously, hands clenched, considering the responsibility of “representing all of womankind” before collapsing face-down on her desk. “Ditz” and “Psycho” thought bubbles appear above her smirking classmates’ heads.</p> <p>So began the kickoff event in the <a href="">You Belong @ MIT</a> interactive seminar by <a href="" target="_blank">Catherine Good</a>, an associate professor of psychology at Baruch College of the City University of New York, senior research scientist at <a href="" target="_blank">Turnaround for Children</a>, and expert in the field of academic belonging. Participants in Good’s April 4th seminar debated the meaning and implications of <a href="" target="_blank">this cartoon</a> by <a href="">Jorge Cham</a> of <em>The Stanford Daily.</em> Organized by the <a href="" target="_blank">MIT Teaching and Learning Lab</a>, with support from the <a href="" target="_blank">MindHandHeart Innovation Fund</a>, the event was part of a three-phase initiative to increase students’ sense of academic belonging.</p> <p>Academic belonging, Good explained, is distinct from friendship or acceptance from peers. “It’s not about whether I have a friend in my class or someone to go to the movies with. It’s about feeling like a valued member of my academic department or discipline.” She continued, “The absence of academic belonging impacts many students, but it affects underrepresented minorities and women in STEM fields most acutely. This can lead to decreased engagement in the classroom, and in some cases, poor academic performance.”&nbsp;</p> <p>In the first part of the seminar, Good presented the latest research on academic belonging to faculty, postdocs, and administrators from across the Institute. During a follow-up workshop, participants discussed concrete strategies for increasing students’ sense of belonging and overall resiliency.</p> <p><strong>Fixed vs. growth mindset</strong></p> <p>Good began by introducing two commonly held theories of intelligence related to academic belonging: the fixed and growth mindsets. Those in the fixed camp view intelligence as determined by nature, while those in the growth camp believe it is malleable and rooted in effort. “Individuals with a fixed mindset view achievement as a way to validate their identity. Those with a growth mindset view achievement as a way to acquire new skills and knowledge. They may be working to solve the same problems, but they’re pursuing different goals.”&nbsp;</p> <p>Good spoke to the specific challenges that a fixed mindset poses for high-achieving students. “Many of them haven’t developed the skills or resources to overcome academic challenges,” she said. “They’re left with their own interpretation of ‘What does it mean to study really hard for a test and only get a B-minus?’ Effort, hard work, failure, struggle — all of those things take on a different meaning in a fixed vs. a growth mindset. A fixed view of intelligence is great as long as you never have to struggle.”</p> <p>The group discussed how many students enter MIT with a fixed view of intelligence, and the challenges it can pose. A participant reflected, “One of the things we have to consider at MIT is that we’re skimming the upper echelon of students. Many of them were at the top of their high school class. Now that they’re in a pool of all high-achieving people, it can feel like they’re not smart anymore.”</p> <p>Another participant added, “Many of our students have built their whole self-concept around the idea of being ‘smart.’ If they feel like they’re not ‘smart’ anymore, it’s almost as if they don’t exist. If they’re not the best, then they feel like they’re nothing.”</p> <p><strong>Strategies for growth and belonging</strong></p> <p>Participants discussed ways to encourage students to adopt a growth mindset, and normalize effort and engagement as the path to success. Good suggested starting with the neurological underpinnings of intelligence. “In my research, I’m explaining to elementary, middle, and high school students that the brain is filled with cells called neurons, and to get smarter means the neurons communicate between each other more effectively through repeating an activity. The mind is like a muscle: The more you work it, the stronger it gets.”</p> <p>Good reviewed research studies and highlighted some of the documented effects of fostering a growth mindset. “It’s striking that when you teach people about growth mindset, that gaps in achievement between black and white kids, men and women, go away even on standardized tests.” Growth mindset, she said, has also been shown to counter stereotype threat, a condition where one feels at risk of confirming to stereotypes about their social group.</p> <p>Participants shared ways they or their colleagues have worked to encourage a growth mindset at MIT, as well as new ideas for doing so. The group discussed discouraging overt competitiveness, which can undermine belonging; grading students based on established benchmarks of mastery; allowing students to correct their homework and receive partial credit for doing so; working with struggling students to cultivate better studying strategies; recognizing what students are doing well in addition to what they can improve upon; and acknowledging that a student’s performance in one class is not enough information to predict their overall success in a field of study.</p> <p>The group discussed how hearing stories of failure and resilience from professors and respected peers is profoundly meaningful to students who are struggling academically and may feel isolated. “Everyone shows you Superman, but no one shows you Clark Kent,” summarized one participant.&nbsp;&nbsp;</p> <p>The interactive seminar and workshop on academic belonging were preceded by a book club on the same topic. The Teaching and Learning Lab is currently planning the second of the three-part You Belong @ MIT program.</p> <p>You Belong @ MIT was funded by the MindHandHeart Innovation Fund, which awards grants to projects advancing wellness, mental health, and community at MIT.</p> Catherine Good leads an interactive seminar on academic belonging with faculty, postdocs, and administrators from across MIT. Photo: Maisie O'BrienSpecial events and guest speakers, Teaching and Learning Laboratory, MindHandHeart, Community, Students, Student life, Mental health, Behavior, Diversity and inclusion, Women in STEM, Education, teaching, academics Detecting walking speed with wireless signals By measuring this emerging vital sign, CSAIL system could help monitor and diagnose health issues like cognitive decline and cardiac disease. Mon, 01 May 2017 10:00:00 -0400 Adam Conner-Simons | Rachel Gordon | CSAIL <p>We’ve long known that blood pressure, breathing, body temperature and pulse provide an important window into the complexities of human health. But <a href="" target="_blank">a growing body of research</a> suggests that another vital sign –&nbsp;how fast you walk –&nbsp;could be a better predictor of health issues like cognitive decline, falls, and even certain cardiac or pulmonary diseases.</p> <p>Unfortunately, it’s hard to accurately monitor walking speed in a way that’s both continuous and unobtrusive. Professor Dina Katabi’s group at MIT’s Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory (CSAIL) has been working on the problem, and believes that the answer is to go wireless.</p> <p>In a new paper, the team presents “WiGait,” a device that can measure the walking speed of multiple people with 95 to 99 percent accuracy using wireless signals.</p> <div class="cms-placeholder-content-video"></div> <p>The size of a small painting, the device can be placed on the wall of a person’s house and its&nbsp;signals emit roughly one-hundredth the amount of radiation of a standard cellphone. It builds on Katabi’s previous work on <a href="" target="_self">WiTrack</a>, which analyzes wireless signals reflected off people’s bodies to measure a range of behaviors&nbsp;from <a href="" target="_self">breathing</a> and <a href="" target="_self">falling</a> to <a href="" target="_self">specific emotions</a>.&nbsp;</p> <p>“By using in-home sensors, we can see trends in how walking speed changes over longer periods of time,” says lead author and PhD student Chen-Yu Hsu. “This can provide insight into whether someone should adjust their health regimen, whether that’s doing physical therapy or altering their medications.”</p> <p>WiGait is also 85 to 99 percent accurate at measuring a person’s stride length, which could allow researchers to better understand conditions like Parkinson’s disease that are characterized by reduced step size.</p> <p>Hsu and Katabi developed WiGait with CSAIL PhD student Zachary Kabelac and master’s student Rumen Hristov, alongside undergraduate Yuchen Liu from the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology, and Assistant Professor Christine Liu from the Boston University School of Medicine. The team will present their paper in May at ACM’s CHI Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems in Colorado. &nbsp;</p> <p><strong>How it works </strong></p> <p>Today, walking speed is measured by physical therapists or clinicians using a stopwatch. Wearables like FitBit can only roughly estimate speed based on step count, and&nbsp;GPS-enabled smartphones are similarly inaccurate and can’t work indoors. Cameras are intrusive and can only monitor one room. VICON motion tracking is the only method that’s comparably accurate to WiGate, but it is not widely available enough to be practical for monitoring day-to-day health changes.</p> <p>Meanwhile, WiGait measures walking speed with a high level of granularity, without requiring that the person wear or carry a sensor. It does so by analyzing the surrounding wireless signals and their reflections off a person’s body. The CSAIL team’s algorithms can also distinguish walking from other movements, such as cleaning the kitchen or brushing&nbsp;one's teeth.</p> <p>Katabi says&nbsp;the device could help reveal a wealth of important health information, particularly for the elderly.&nbsp;A&nbsp;change in walking speed, for example, could mean that the person has suffered an injury or&nbsp;is at an increased risk of falling. The system's feedback could even help the person determine if they should move to a different environment such as&nbsp;an assisted-living home.</p> <p>“Many avoidable hospitalizations are related to issues like falls, congestive heart disease, or chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, which have all been shown to be correlated to gait speed,” Katabi says. “Reducing the number of hospitalizations, even by a small amount, could vastly improve health care costs.”</p> <p>The team developed WiGait to be more privacy-minded than cameras, showing you as nothing more than a moving dot on a screen. In the future they hope to train it on people with walking impairments from&nbsp;Parkinson’s, Alzheimer’s&nbsp;or multiple sclerosis,&nbsp;to help physicians accurately track disease progression and adjust medications.</p> <p>“The true novelty of this device is that it can map major metrics of health and behavior without any active engagement from the user, which is especially helpful for the cognitively impaired,” says Ipsit Vahia, a geriatric clinician at McLean Hospital and Harvard Medical School, who was not involved in the research. “Gait speed is a proxy indicator of many clinically important conditions, and down the line this could extend to measuring sleep patterns, respiratory rates, and other vital human behaviors.”</p>WiGait uses wireless signals to continuously measure a person's walking speed, which may help predict cognitive and motor function decline, and even certain cardiac or pulmonary diseases.Photo: Jason Dorfman/CSAILComputer science and technology, Wireless, Networks, Motion sensing, Mental health, Health, Behavior, Aging, Research, Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory (CSAIL), Health care, Health sciences and technology, Electrical Engineering & Computer Science (eecs) Revolutionizing global health In more than 20 years working on wireless sensors and radio frequency identification (RFID), Richard Fletcher has produced several startups and over a dozen patents. Wed, 26 Apr 2017 17:25:01 -0400 Daniel de Wolff | MIT Industrial Liaison Program <p>MIT research scientist Richard Fletcher directs the Mobile Technology Group at MIT D-Lab, which develops a variety of mobile sensors, analytic tools, and diagnostic algorithms to study problems in global health and behavior medicine. Utilizing mobile technologies — which include smartphones, wearable sensors, and the so-called <a href="" target="_blank">internet of things</a> — his group applies these technologies to real-world social problems with global implications. These issues involve a variety of areas, such as environmental monitoring and air pollution, agriculture, farming, and global health.</p> <p>Fletcher notes that public health is of enormous importance and includes a wide range of diseases and conditions. His work at D-Lab has a myriad of applications: Sometimes this means simply doing better point-of-care diagnosis of acute or chronic diseases; other times, the focus is on screening and identifying those who are sick but don’t realize it. “For example, consider the fact that every two minutes around the world a woman dies in childbirth. This is something that is for the most part preventable if problems can be detected ahead of time,” Fletcher says.</p> <p>Fletcher’s group also creates tools that promote healthier behaviors and lifestyles. In addition to cardiometabolic diseases, such as diabetes, he points to the multitude of mental health disorders, like depression, anxiety disorders, sleep disorders, and the crisis of substance abuse, which negatively impact millions of lives, as areas that are in severe need of better solutions. His work seeks to apply technology to address many of these fundamental social problems affecting people on a daily basis.</p> <p>“Mobile technology is a double-edged sword,” says Fletcher. “Addiction to smartphones and social media are emerging as serious problems, and most mobile health apps on the market have never been validated or tested clinically. But our group is trying to change that, and demonstrate that mobile technology can be a powerful tool to positively impact people’s health.”</p> <p>While some might question whether this type of public health work has a place at an engineering school, Fletcher insists that the combination of technical knowledge coupled with the freedom to seek out novel approaches to design flaws are part of what makes MIT D-Lab the ideal setting for the work. Fletcher’s philosophy with regard to the intersection of technology and health is global. He is adamant in his belief that the design constraints encountered in the developing world must be considered and confronted in the early stages of design. While health researchers and doctors don’t generally have the luxury of designing their technology, and instead usually customize what is available, Fletcher’s group is uniquely interdisciplinary and designs everything from the ground up: from the electronic circuit boards and firmware to the software and the algorithms to the network communications and server-side software. He believes the incorporation of this knowledge will ultimately produce a superior product, best suited to the end customer and their constraints.</p> <p>“Having this feedback loop that extends from the early stages of technology development all the way to clinical field studies, is the true marriage of technology and global and public health,” Feltcher says. In his view, developing countries need the most advanced technology that is simplified so it may be used by people with lower technical skills and less training. But Fletcher is quick to point out that this doesn’t mean dumbed-down versions. Rather, the opposite is true; the tools must be endowed with an extremely high level of intelligence, including machine learning algorithms to provide diagnostic support, and also the use of technologies such as augmented reality to make the interface easy to use. “We often say, we like to empower ordinary people to do extraordinary things. This is what technology should really be about.”</p> <p>Global health was not Rich Fletcher’s initial field interest. Rather, he devoted the first stages of his career, including graduate school and time in the military, to the development of wireless sensors and radio frequency identification (RFID). At that time, he was interested in the early visions of the internet of things, which led to thinking about ubiquitous computing. One of the fundamental tenets of that vision was that every object in our environment should have its own unique ID. Fletcher worked with Kevin Ashton at Proctor and Gamble, who coined the term “internet of things” together with his MIT advisor Neil Gershenfeld. Building on his five-year research experience at the U.S. Air Force Materials Lab, Fletcher worked with Gershenfeld to create unique ID codes embedded within smart materials themselves.</p> <p>“Every material has its own electromagnetic signature,” he explains, “and you can use that signature to identify the things in your environment.” The next step in the puzzle involved researching how to apply material structures to do the sensing in the environment. Fletcher says, “You not only want the devices in your environment to have an ID, and be able to talk to them, but you also want them to sense what is going on. Things as simple as light, vibration, temperature, and so forth.” He created sensors made from low-cost materials, which spawned his startup Tag-Sense, and spinoffs including Fresh Temp, which was acquired a few months ago by internet of things company Digi.</p> <p>Working with one of the world’s first RFID companies, Indala Corporation, and then later MIT groups led by Gershenfeld and MIT Professor Sanjay Sarma, Fletcher has been integral to the evolution of RFID technology. From identification, to sensing, to communication protocol that allows these things to talk to one another, and even to the idea of energy harvesting, or how to use vibration, light, and heat to power these things and create micro-batteries or energy harvesting circuits. After completing his PhD at the Media Lab, Fletcher also built sensors for living plants and agriculture, inspired by JC Bose in Calcutta, India, who was one of the first people to detect and produce radio waves in the late 1800s. Bose proved that plants have primitive nervous systems and can communicate with their environments. It was this work with signals that attracted Fletcher to the signals produced by biological systems and the living things themselves (i.e., plants, animals, humans). “I discovered that there is enormous complexity in these signals, and an enormous opportunity to explore these signals for health applications. I also learned that we can apply machine learning and other advanced analysis to the data produced by humans, animals, and plants, and be able to create some very powerful tools for analyzing and improving our health.” Fletcher then went on to build wearable sensors for children with autism with Professor Rosalind Picard at the MIT Media Lab and also made wearable sensors for monkeys and primates with Institute Professor Ann Graybiel, who studies the neuroscience of addiction.</p> <p>Working with smartphones led Fletcher to the realm of mental health. With the phone’s ability to deliver images, videos, and sounds, and connect to other people, Fletcher suggests we can think of our phones as a drug delivery device, capable of delivering therapy outside the clinic. Creative utilization of the technology has spawned forward thinking models for helping those in need. For example, his group has recently partnered with a preeminent yoga school in India to develop mobile tools that will help train people to meditate as a means to alleviate stress and manage pain.</p> <p>Fletcher also recognizes the difficulties inherent in mobile technologies and wearable sensors. Oftentimes those who need these technologies are the most resistant to wearing them (for example, elderly people or people with mental health issues). For this reason, he and his group are developing technologies that can measure physiology and monitor behavior in a non-contact manner, without the need for wearable sensors, utilizing devices such as low-cost Doppler radar devices imbedded in car seats, walls, or furniture, to measure heart rate and respiration. He also uses special cameras and thermal imaging, even odors emitted from the human body. All of these technologies and signals can tell us about our health. In his eyes, this “ubiquitous sensing” is the future direction of the field.</p> <p>An essential element to Rich Fletcher’s work is the desire for his research have a significant impact in the real world. As such, entrepreneurship, and by extension partnering with individuals, startup companies, or organizations, is integral to his endeavors. Because Fletcher is interested in sustainability of the product and the business model. It is not only a marriage of technology and health, but also an embrace of the multi-faceted process required to positively impact the world. “Now is really an exciting time,” Fletcher says. “The vision we had 20 years ago of the internet of things is now finally becoming a reality. Now that the technology has matured, we’re starting to look at what we can do with these technologies and what is possible. And that’s what my group does today. We look at how we can apply all these wonderful mobile wireless technologies in ways that can have real social impact and apply them to solve real social problems.”</p> Richard Fletcher, research scientist in the MIT D-LabPhoto: David SellaProfile, Staff, D-Lab, Wireless, Media Lab, internet of things, Health, Mental health, Behavior, School of Architecture and Planning, Industry, Innovation and Entrepreneurship (I&E), Developing countries Brain circuit enables split-second decisions when cues conflict New findings shed light on how we quickly assess risks and rewards before acting. Mon, 24 Apr 2017 10:59:59 -0400 Helen Knight | MIT News correspondent <p>When animals hunt or forage for food, they must constantly weigh whether the chance of a meal is worth the risk of being spotted by a predator. The same conflict between cost and benefit is at the heart of many of the decisions humans make on a daily basis.</p> <p>The ability to instantly consider contradictory information from the environment and decide how to act is essential for survival. It’s also a key feature of mental health. Yet despite its importance, very little is known about the connections in the brain that give us the ability to make these split second decisions.</p> <p>Now, in a paper published in the journal <em>Nature Neuroscience</em>, researchers at the Picower Institute for Learning and Memory at MIT reveal the circuit in the brain that is critical for governing how we respond to conflicting environmental cues.</p> <p>Two regions of the brain — the basolateral nucleus of the amygdala and the medial prefrontal cortex — have for some time been implicated in reward-seeking and fear-related responses, according to Kay Tye, an assistant professor in the Department of Brain and Cognitive Sciences at MIT and a member of the Picower Institute for Learning and Memory. Tye is the senior author of the research, alongside post docs Anthony Burgos-Robles and Eyal Kimchi, who co-led the study.</p> <p>“The amygdala is thought to be important for emotive processes, and the prefrontal cortex is thought to be important for higher cognitive processes,” Tye says. “So if I am walking down the street and a dog barks at me, my amygdala might respond immediately as I feel fear, but then I would see that the dog is chained up, and my prefrontal cortex could help to silence my amygdala.”</p> <p>However, exactly how these two regions interact, and how information flows between the two structures to coordinate behavior in the face of competing signals has remained unclear, she says.</p> <p>To better understand the mechanisms governing this process, the researchers simultaneously recorded the activity of neurons in both the basolateral nucleus of the amygdala (BLA) and the prelimbic (PL) medial prefrontal cortex in rats.</p> <p>The researchers first tagged each set of neurons with a light-sensitive protein called channelrhodopsin.</p> <p>The rats were then given a task to perform, in which they were presented with competing environmental signals: one associated with a sugary reward, and the other with a punishment. Then, when the researchers shone a light on the two regions of the brain, they were able to identify which neurons in the BLA were sending messages to the PL.</p> <p>The researchers then investigated how accurately the firing of these neurons could predict how the animal would behave in the face of conflicting environmental cues.</p> <p>They trained a machine-learning algorithm using data on how the neurons fired when the rats were presented with just the reward cue or the fear cue alone. They then tested the algorithm on data from the competition task, in which the rats were presented with both cues simultaneously.</p> <p>“We found that the BLA neurons that connect directly to the PL performed much better than other BLA neurons and other PL neurons, in predicting the behavior of the animals during competition,” Tye says.</p> <p>This suggests that whatever information is transmitted from the BLA to the PL can predict how the animal will act. “The routing of information from the basolateral nucleus of the amygdala to the prefrontal cortex is critical for decision-making during conflict,” Tye says.</p> <p>This is important, because the ability to make good decisions when there is conflict is a fundamental one, she says: “All the time we are being presented with positive and negative cues, and a lot of the time it is up to us to determine what we respond to.”</p> <p>The findings could also have implications for our understanding of mental illness, since people with a psychiatric disorder may not always be capable of making good judgments.</p> <p>The study shows that researchers should make every effort to understand how several regions control a complex behavior, according to Rony Paz, an associate professor in neurobiology at the Weizmann Institute of Science in Israel, who was not involved in the research.</p> <p>“Taken together with previous studies, the paper shows that maladaptive abnormal behaviors, such as in anxiety disorders, are a result of imbalances in the subcortical-cortical circuitry,” Paz says. “But unlike the classical concepts, we now know better that both sides of the equation (circuit) need to be controlled and normalized in order to restore normal function.”</p> <p>The researchers now hope to collaborate with other teams to develop a computational model of how the two areas of the brain carry out the process of decision-making during conflict. This model could then be tested, to learn more about the mechanisms involved.</p> Image: MIT NewsResearch, Neuroscience, Brain and cognitive sciences, Mental health, Picower Institute, School of Science, Behavior Lorraine Wong awarded 2017 MIT Collier Medal MIT senior in brain and cognitive sciences and women&#039;s and gender studies honored for community work supporting mental health and women in STEM. Tue, 21 Mar 2017 14:35:01 -0400 Rachel Traughber | Department of Brain and Cognitive Sciences <p>In 2014, MIT created the Collier Medal to honor Police Officer Sean Collier’s commitment to engaging with the community around him during his time at the Institute. The medal is a living memorial to Officer Collier, who gave his life in service to MIT on April 18, 2013.</p> <p>“How do you pay homage to a person who made the ultimate sacrifice, and also remember the person that he was?” asks MIT Chief of Police John DiFava. “We’ve memorialized him in two ways. We’ve built this beautiful structure in front of Stata and the Koch Institute, and we created the [Collier] Medal, which keeps [Sean] alive, in terms of what he stood for, what he was, and what he represented on this campus.”</p> <p>This year’s recipient, MIT senior Lorraine Wong, embodies the spirit of service the Collier Medal commemorates. Jared Berezin, a lecturer in the Department of Comparative Media Studies/Writing, met Wong through the Increase Help Seeking working group on campus, part of MIT’s MindHandHeart Initiative. The group was created to develop ways to connect those who are struggling with mental health to resources, and to reduce the societal stigma seeking help can bring.</p> <p>“As the student co-chair of the working group, Lorraine holds a leadership position, yet rather than take a commanding role over meetings, they often prefer to listen intently to the members of the group,” says Berezin. “Lorraine is typically the first to volunteer to do critical work on our group’s behalf — ranging from setting up our infrastructure needs to preparing key questions for the group to consider — yet they show little interest in receiving recognition. They want to learn as much as they can, and do as much as possible to bring about meaningful, potentially life-saving changes on campus.”</p> <p>The suicide of a close high school friend spurred Wong’s interest in mental health and mental illness.</p> <p>“We didn’t talk about mental health or mental illness in my high school. It felt like people just went on. Statistically, there are so many people dealing with the same things, and they just keep it inside and don’t feel like they can talk about it,” Wong explains.</p> <p>As an MIT freshman, Wong joined the campus group Active Minds, a peer outreach group whose mission echoes that of Increase Help Seeking. Their mandate is to utilize peer outreach to increase students' awareness of the issues surrounding mental health, symptoms of mental illness, and the available resources for seeking help, while serving as&nbsp;a liaison between students and the administration and mental health community.</p> <p>“There’s nothing wrong with you if you have a mental illness or mental health issues. At MIT, many people were somewhere near the top of their high school class, they’ve been pretty successful, and often times they had people right there to support them. When you’re here, and you’re in your freshman fall, and you’re taking classes that you’ve never taken before with so many talented students, it’s not going to be as easy to succeed. And if you’re struggling but you don’t feel like you can reach out for help, that can hurt academically as well as personally and emotionally,” Wong says.</p> <p>This quiet commitment to helping others and an interest in science and technology intertwined in Wong from an early age. In addition to mental health advocacy, Wong also volunteers for programs that encourage girls to connect to STEM fields. Growing up in Los Altos, California, they attended a K-12 STEM-focused school, actively participated in two Girl Scout troops, and helped to create a third.</p> <p>“In high school, I did robotics. We had a Girl Scouts team called Space Cookies,” shares Wong. Jointly sponsored by NASA and the Girl Scouts, the robotics team was a special troop that exposed young women to designing, fabricating, and programming robots in a group setting. “We were able to work at the NASA Ames Research Center. It was an amazing experience.” During their senior year, Wong helped create the middle school version of the troop, ensuring that girls as young as 12 could participate.</p> <p>Wong's interest in this advocacy continued at MIT, where they participated in the Women’s Initiative, an outreach program that sends students majoring in STEM fields to schools around the country to talk to girls about engaging with STEM. Wong spent a week in the Lowell, Massachusetts school district, speaking to middle school girls about different kinds of science and engineering, and finishing with a hands-on project extracting DNA from strawberries.</p> <p>“The girls were taken out of the class to meet with us. It was a special time for them to be able to be on their own, have engineering and science on their minds, while not having the stereotypes filtering in from other people also working on the same things,” says Wong.</p> <p>With these dual interests in mental health and gender, it should come as no surprise that Wong is a double major in brain and cognitive sciences and the Program in Women and Gender Studies. After they graduate, Wong plans to work at nonprofits for a few years before going to grad school for degrees in social work and public policy. While many of the activities they are involved with on campus touch mental health and gender, they are also part of the greater Boston advocacy community, working with Planned Parenthood, the Samaritans crisis hotline, and GLAD, the GLBTQ Legal Advocates and Defenders, where they volunteer at GLAD Answers, a legal infoline.</p> <p>“I love MIT’s mission,” Wong says. “Our motto is 'mind and hand,' but I think our mission closes with something like ‘we’re trying to teach our students science, tech, and engineering for the betterment of humankind.’ It’s not that we’re teaching these things to make money, or make cool discoveries, but we’re doing it for or to help people. It’s not just science — there’s a human aspect to everything we do.”</p> Senior Lorraine Wong is the 2017 recipient of the MIT Collier Medal.Photo: Department of Brain and Cognitive SciencesAwards, honors and fellowships, Students, Undergraduate, MindHandHeart, Police, Sean Collier, Brain and cognitive sciences, Mental health, Women in STEM, Women's and Gender Studies, SHASS, School of Science, Community Learning life skills An MIT event series dedicated to the things everyone should know, but were never taught in school. Mon, 20 Mar 2017 15:30:01 -0400 Maisie O’Brien | MindHandHeart Initiative <p>From doing taxes, to finding an apartment, to communicating effectively with a partner: Life confronts us with many moments where we realize we’re lacking some vital skills. Things everyone should know. Things that make us wonder: Why did they never teach me this in school?</p> <p>To address these gaps in practical knowledge, the <a href="" target="_blank">MindHandHeart Life Skills Working Group</a> organized <a href="" target="_blank">Life Skills Week</a> to inform and empower the MIT community. Running from Feb. 27 to March 3, 15 workshops were held across campus on topics like financial literacy, conflict management, and civic participation.</p> <p>Mercedes Ondik, an MIT junior majoring in <a href="" target="_blank">brain and cognitive sciences</a> and member of the Life Skills Working Group, proposed the week as a way to help her peers gain some of the skills she feels fortunate to have learned from her family, and develop skills she wanted to learn herself.</p> <p>“Life skills were drilled into my head from a young age,” said Ondik. “My dad was adamant about teaching me how to cook healthy meals, balance a budget, and change a flat tire. Whatever he needed to do in order for us to live, I was right there next to him learning how to do it.”</p> <p>She continued: “Many parents continue to play a caregiver role as their children grow up. They might do all of the cooking and cleaning, so their kids can just be kids. But this can become problematic when their children go off to college and they’re lacking important everyday skills that weren’t covered in high school.”</p> <p>An initial challenge for the working group was defining the concept of life skills and selecting workshop topics. “Life skills really encompass everything,” said Meghan Kenney, assistant dean of new student programming and co-chair of the Life Skills Working Group. “It’s managing your money. It’s being a good friend and an informed citizen. It’s all of the different competencies that help people thrive in addition to or regardless of the career-based training they receive.”&nbsp;</p> <p>“In our community, we focus a lot on academics and preparing our students to excel in their fields,” she said. “But life skills are important too, and they need to be taught and practiced, just like an academic discipline.”</p> <p>“MIT students are very capable people,” added Joseph Zimakas, a staff associate in <a href="" target="_blank">Student Support Services</a> and co-chair of the Life Skills Working Group. “I’m often very impressed by what they’ve learned since coming to MIT or from experiences they’ve had before — but there are always gaps in knowledge.”</p> <p>“There are so many things that people don’t know or get embarrassed about not knowing. For example, some people don’t learn to drive until well after many of their peers, but can still take the opportunity to learn when it is presented to them. We don’t have to be a master at everything, but it never hurts to pick up a new skill.”</p> <p>Ondik attended three Life Skills Week events on developing an effective job search strategy, financial literacy, and leading as an introvert. She received useful advice, and discovered a common thread running through the sessions was the importance of self-awareness. “Getting to know yourself is hugely important for college students,” she said. “You have to know your goals and aspirations before the nitty gritty of life skills can fall into place.”</p> <p>Although the Working Group is still reviewing evaluation materials, initial reviews of Life Skills Week have been positive. “I was thrilled by the response from our community,” said Kenney. “What we’ve heard so far is that the workshops provided concrete and valuable information, and that people wished we offered more events like these.”</p> <p>“What’s great about this feedback is that offices on campus are providing many of these services already, so now we’re focused on making people aware of the resources available to them. We actually brought in very few outside speakers for Life Skills Week. In true MIT fashion, we made use of the resources available to us, and most of the sessions were led by experts from within our community.”</p> <p>In tandem with the event series, the Working Group members set up a booth in Lobby 10 and asked passersby what life skills they or their peers were lacking. The group is currently aggregating the responses to inform later event series and regular campus programming.</p> <p>“Life Skills Week came together because of the hard work of everyone in our group,” said Kenney. “It was a true collaboration and I was glad that it was Mercedes’ idea. Many of our students have great ideas, but don’t necessarily have the capacity to implement them, so it was wonderful that we were able to respond to what she and her friends were needing.”</p> <p>For more information on MindHandHeart’s working groups and ways to get involved, visit <a href="" target="_blank"></a>.</p> Students attended "Quiet Power: Learning to Lead as an Introvert," held as part of Life Skills Week at MIT.Photo: Maisie O'BrienMindHandHeart, Community, Students, Student life, Undergraduate, Graduate, postdoctoral, Mental health, Special events and guest speakers The OpenMind::OpenArt Project An MIT art studio and public gallery is raising awareness about mental health and wellness. Wed, 15 Mar 2017 17:30:01 -0400 Maisie O’Brien | MindHandHeart Initiative <p>The six faces staring back at you were sewn together with pieces of brightly colored fabric and divided into a quilt-like pattern. They have expressions of concern and apprehension, and the longer you stare at them, the more alive they become.</p> <p>The piece entitled “Stitched Together” was created by first-year MIT students Allan and Danny Gelman as part of The <a href="" target="_blank">OpenMind::OpenArt (OMOA)</a> project. The brothers were selected along with eight other students to take part in the OMOA Art Studio during <a href="">Independent Activities Period (IAP)</a>, during which they made artwork related to mental health and wellness. The studio culminated with a gallery opening on Feb. 16 in the Student Center.</p> <p>OMOA was conceived of by <a href="" target="_blank">Jessica Artiles</a> '12 MS '15 who earned a bachelor's in mechanical engineering and dual master's degrees in mechanical engineering and technology and policy from MIT, as a way to raise awareness about mental health issues on campus. She applied for and was awarded a grant to spearhead the project through the <a href="" target="_blank">MindHandHeart Innovation Fund</a>.</p> <p>“At MIT, we lean towards the side of quantifying things,” said Artiles. “We like to assign numbers and variables to solve tough problems. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but there are so many challenges in the world that we’re far from understanding in a calculable way — like the complex mechanisms affecting mental health. Art is one way to express these intangible phenomena, and MIT and <a href="" target="_blank">MindHandHeart</a> understand it’s a valuable thing to pursue.”</p> <p>Every Thursday night in January, Artiles, the 10 artists, two art instructors, and volunteers from MIT’s maker community met in the <a href="" target="_blank">Student Art Association</a> Art Studio to discuss the students’ projects, gather feedback, and consider the themes and meaning underlying their work.&nbsp;</p> <p>“I originally saw my role in OMOA as an instigator,” said Artiles. “I wanted to guide, provoke, and facilitate the creative process, but I was really blown away by the students’ stories and motivation. They didn’t need me to guide them; they already had a reason for being there.”</p> <p>“Our weekly sessions were really fun,” said Danny Gelman. “It was a great atmosphere where people talked, made art, and got feedback on their pieces.” The brothers drew inspiration from a fabric-based nature scene they saw in the <a href="" target="_blank">Tretyakov Gallery</a> in Moscow, and worked to portray similar facial expressions across their six portraits.</p> <p>“We were looking for a twinge of sadness or empathy that the people were expressing,” said Allan Gelman. “The idea was that the viewer would see the piece and empathize with the faces or maybe feel like the faces were empathizing with them. Another concept was related to how we constructed it, and the idea that if you ever fall apart, you can stitch yourself back together.”</p> <p>Larkin Sayre, a senior majoring in mechanical engineering, created a series of three abstract paintings as part of OMOA. “I spent a lot of time thinking about what I wanted to make,” Sayre explained. “But when it came time to create the piece, my process was very free-flowing and really about getting out of my head. When I look at my work, I see waves and veins and a heart beating, but each viewer will have a different, completely personal way of engaging with it.”</p> <p>She enjoyed the gallery opening and invited classmates to see her work. “It was great to see my friends and the people I care about most coming to see what I created. When I make art, it’s usually just for myself, so it was nice to have a platform to share my piece with others.”</p> <p>Sayre added: “The gallery opening was a really powerful way for MIT students and the administration to come together and say to the world, or whomever may be listening, that mental health is important; that it is a priority; and that our community is thinking about these issues.”</p> <p>Adding to the excitement of the gallery opening was the presence of live musicians, a mural painting session, technology and media exhibits, a guided meditation exercise, and speeches by Artiles and MindHandHeart Executive Administrator <a href="" target="_blank">Maryanne Kirkbride</a>, who thanked Artiles, the artists, and the <a href="" target="_blank">Campus Activities Complex</a> for their hard work and ingenuity in putting the event together.</p> <p>“Neither of us expected the gallery opening to take up the entire first floor of the Student Center,” said Danny Gelman. “But it was just amazing — everything from the beatboxers to the virtual reality displays, it was really cool and a lot of fun.”</p> <p>Pictures of the students’ artwork and the gallery opening are available on the <a href=";album_id=389238884779364" target="_blank">MindHandHeart Facebook page</a>. The mural created as part of OMOA is available for viewing in the <a href="" target="_blank">Student Center</a> (next to LaVerde’s).</p> <p>For more information on The OpenMind::OpenArt project, including a full list of the artists, makers, and performers who made the studio sessions and gallery opening a success, visit <a href="" target="_blank"></a>.</p> <p>The MindHandHeart Innovation Fund, which supported The OpenMind::OpenArt Project, is accepting applications through March 31. Grants of up to $10,000 are available to fund projects that aim to make MIT a healthier, stronger, or more welcoming community.</p> OpenMind::OpenArt artists, makers, and volunteers pose at the gallery opening.Photo: Josh RamosMindHandHeart, Community, Arts, Students, Student life, Undergraduate, Mental health, Special events and guest speakers Wearable AI system can detect a conversation&#039;s tone Coupled with audio and vital-sign data, deep-learning system could someday serve as a “social coach” for people with anxiety or Asperger’s. Wed, 01 Feb 2017 10:00:00 -0500 Adam Conner-Simons | Rachel Gordon | CSAIL <p>It’s a fact of nature that a single conversation can be interpreted in very different ways. For people with anxiety or conditions such as Asperger’s, this can make social situations extremely stressful. But what if there was a more objective way to measure and understand our interactions?</p> <p>Researchers from MIT’s <a href="">Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory</a> (CSAIL) and <a href="">Institute of Medical Engineering and Science</a> (IMES) say that they’ve gotten closer to a potential solution: an artificially intelligent, wearable system that can predict if a conversation is happy, sad, or neutral based on a person’s speech patterns and vitals.</p> <p>“Imagine if, at the end of a conversation, you could rewind it and see the moments when the people around you felt the most anxious,” says graduate student Tuka Alhanai, who co-authored a related paper with PhD candidate Mohammad Ghassemi that they will present at next week’s Association for the Advancement of Artificial Intelligence (AAAI) conference in San Francisco. “Our work is a step in this direction, suggesting that we may not be that far away from a world where people can have an AI social coach right in their pocket.”</p> <div class="cms-placeholder-content-video"></div> <p>As a participant tells a story, the system can analyze audio, text transcriptions, and physiological signals to determine the overall tone of the story with 83 percent accuracy. Using deep-learning techniques, the system can also provide a “sentiment score” for specific five-second intervals within a conversation.</p> <p>“As far as we know, this is the first experiment that collects both physical data and speech data in a passive but robust way, even while subjects are having natural, unstructured interactions,” says Ghassemi. “Our results show that it’s possible to classify the emotional tone of conversations in real-time.”</p> <p>The researchers say that the system's performance would be further improved by having multiple people in a conversation use it on their smartwatches, creating more data to be analyzed by their algorithms. The team is keen to point out that they developed the system with privacy strongly in mind: The algorithm runs locally on a user’s device as a way of protecting personal information. (Alhanai says that a consumer version would obviously need clear protocols for getting consent from the people involved in the conversations.)</p> <p><strong>How it works</strong></p> <p>Many emotion-detection studies show participants “happy” and “sad” videos, or ask them to artificially act out specific emotive states. But in an effort to elicit more organic emotions, the team instead asked subjects to tell a happy or sad story of their own choosing.</p> <p>Subjects wore a Samsung Simband, a research device that captures high-resolution physiological waveforms to measure features such as movement, heart rate, blood pressure, blood flow, and skin temperature. The system also captured audio data and text transcripts to analyze the speaker’s tone, pitch, energy, and vocabulary.</p> <p>“The team’s usage of consumer market devices for collecting physiological data and speech data shows how close we are to having such tools in everyday devices,” says Björn Schuller, professor and chair of Complex and Intelligent Systems at the University of Passau in Germany, who was not involved in the research. “Technology could soon feel much more emotionally intelligent, or even ‘emotional’ itself.”</p> <p>After capturing 31 different conversations of several minutes each, the team trained two algorithms on the data: One classified the overall nature of a conversation as either happy or sad, while the second classified each five-second block of every conversation as positive, negative, or neutral.</p> <p>Alhanai notes that, in traditional neural networks, all features about the data are provided to the algorithm at the base of the network. In contrast, her team found that they could improve performance by organizing different features at the various layers of the network.</p> <p>“The system picks up on how, for example, the sentiment in the text transcription was more abstract than the raw accelerometer data," says Alhanai. “It’s quite remarkable that a machine could approximate how we humans perceive these interactions, without significant input from us as researchers.”</p> <p><strong>Results</strong></p> <p>Indeed, the algorithm’s findings align well with what we humans might expect to observe. For instance, long pauses and monotonous vocal tones were associated with sadder stories, while more energetic, varied speech patterns were associated with happier ones. In terms of body language, sadder stories were also strongly associated with increased fidgeting and cardiovascular activity, as well as certain postures like putting one’s hands on one’s face.</p> <p>On average, the model could classify the mood of each five-second interval with an accuracy that was approximately 18 percent above chance, and a full 7.5 percent better than existing approaches.</p> <p>The algorithm is not yet reliable enough to be deployed for social coaching, but Alhanai says that they are actively working toward that goal. For future work the team plans to collect data on a much larger scale, potentially using commercial devices such as the Apple Watch that would allow them to more easily implement the system out in the world.</p> <p>“Our next step is to improve the algorithm’s emotional granularity so that it is more accurate at calling out boring, tense, and excited moments, rather than just labeling interactions as ‘positive’ or ‘negative,'” says Alhanai. “Developing technology that can take the pulse of human emotions has the potential to dramatically improve how we communicate with each other.”</p> <p>This research was made possible in part by the Samsung Strategy and Innovation Center.</p> PhD candidate Mohammad Ghassemi (left) and graduate student Tuka Alhanai's system can detect the tone of a conversation using a wearable device.Photo: Jason Dorfman/MIT CSAILComputer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory (CSAIL), Institute for Medical Engineering and Sciences (IMES), Computer science and technology, Research, Mental health, Health, Behavior, Electrical Engineering & Computer Science (eecs), Sensors, Wearable sensors Taking a break and making connections MIT Senior Jahnavi Kalpathy shares her story of taking a leave of absence. Wed, 11 Jan 2017 14:55:01 -0500 Maisie O’Brien | MindHandHeart Initiative <p>In spring of 2014, Jahnavi Kalpathy was weighing her options: She could remain at MIT and try to shake the floundering feeling that had plagued her since she arrived at the Institute. Or she could take a year-long leave of absence, using the time to reflect on her academic choices and find a clearer vision of her future. Leaving would mean missing friends and acclimating to a new class; staying would preclude the possibility of a fresh start.</p> <p>“I was going through a lot of patterns and I wasn’t learning how to fix them,” says Jahnavi, now a senior majoring in mechanical engineering. “I would start off each semester doing really well academically, then I’d lose momentum and become unmotivated halfway through. I’d procrastinate and pull all-nighters, withdraw from social events, and avoid calls from my family. I was unsure where my degree was taking me, or why I’d been admitted to MIT in the first place.”</p> <p>Jahnavi was struck by a persistent, nagging feeling that she didn’t belong at the Institute. “I jokingly told everyone that I got in on ‘the self-deprecating comedian quota’ — but I also believed it,” she says. In time, she learned that this feeling is called Impostor syndrome, where one is constantly afraid of being exposed as a "fraud."</p> <p>The feeling was especially acute when she considered taking a leave from MIT.&nbsp; “I thought taking a break proved I was a failure,” Jahnavi says. “But it turned out to be the best thing I could have done.”&nbsp;</p> <p><strong>A new perspective and Tesla Motors</strong></p> <p>Following the advice of family members and mentors, Jahnavi moved home to California where she could enjoy a more comfortable pace and time with childhood friends. “I was able to experience different parts of my personality without feeling the pressure of coursework hanging over me,” she says. “On the weekends, I traveled to San Francisco and explored the city with friends. I worked on creative projects for my own personal benefit, not just to get an assignment done or receive a grade.”</p> <p>She also corresponded regularly with an MIT alum and family friend who had taken a leave of absence. “She told me she had felt everything I was going through. She helped me build a new perspective that let me come back to MIT stronger and more ready.”</p> <p>To prepare for her return to MIT, Jahnavi took classes in fluid mechanics, thermodynamics, and aerodynamics at a local community college. “I found there was a lot less pressure at a state school, and I was more comfortable reaching out to professors when I didn’t understand something,” she says. “I did really well in these courses, in large part because I learned to ask for help when I needed it.”</p> <p>Jahnavi also completed two internships in the manufacturing and test departments of <a href="" target="_blank">Jabil Circuits</a> and <a href="" target="_blank">Tesla Motors</a>, which made her feel productive and valued. “I was contributing to teams and larger projects, which helped me reevaluate the stress of MIT and realize that my college experience is only a small part of what I can accomplish as an engineer and as a person.”</p> <p>Her internship at Tesla Motors also gave her a newfound interest in sustainable design. “I changed my mechanical engineering concentration to sustainable development and energy because of my time at Telsa,” she says. “I was inspired to create products that improve the way humans interact with the environment.”&nbsp;</p> <p><strong>By students, for students</strong></p> <p>Upon returning to MIT, Jahnavi joined a support group for returning students. “About seven or eight of us met once a week with a psychiatrist from <a href="" target="_blank">Mental Health and Counseling</a> and a dean from <a href="" target="_blank">Student Support Services</a>,” she says. “It was helpful to connect with students like me who were trying to find new communities and make MIT home again. The perspective I gained during my year away actually helped me to form stronger friendships with my classmates.”</p> <p>David Randall, senior associate dean of student support and wellbeing, says “Jahnavi is an example of the leave process working just the way it should. She made the decision to leave, utilized all of the right resources, and chose to come back only when she felt ready.” Randall thinks that more students will have a similar positive experience&nbsp;as a result of the recommendations coming out of the&nbsp;<a href="" target="_self">undergraduate leave and return review</a> last spring. “Students are feeling generally more comfortable about the leave process and about the new leave of absence option most especially.”</p> <p>Today, Jahnavi knows that ups and downs do not make an impostor. “We all struggle. And I am still trying to accept myself as a work in progress,” she says. She is considering post-graduation plans and gravitates toward using her engineering degree to help other people. She has taken multiple classes that focus on designing technology for and with developing communities around the world. As part of a <a href="">D-Lab</a> class, she traveled to Tanzania during IAP to show farmers how to build and operate a bicycle-powered corn-thresher.</p> <p>In September 2016, Jahnavi spoke to the incoming first-year class as part of the annual “By Students, For Students” forum. The event provides an opportunity for upperclassmen to share personal challenges they have faced at MIT and describe how they sought help, and ultimately, how they persevered. Students take the lead in organizing the event with logistical support from Student Support Services (S3) and the Office of Undergraduate Academic and Advising Programming.</p> <p>Addressing the crowd, Jahnavi shared what she would tell her younger self arriving at MIT for the first time: “Always be willing to ask for help. When you’re on top of your work, you feel comfortable reaching out. When you’re behind, you feel less comfortable doing so — but that is when help-seeking is most important.”</p> <p>“When I feel like asking for help will pose a burden to someone else, I stop and notice that feeling. That feeling is a reminder to connect.”</p> <p>For a complete list of the support resources available to MIT students, visit <a href="" target="_blank"></a>.</p> <p>For more information on taking a leave of absence from MIT, visit <a href="" target="_blank"></a>.</p> MindHandHeart, Community, Students, Student life, Undergraduate, Mental health, Mechanical engineering, School of Engineering, MIT Medical Newest MindHandHeart Innovation Fund projects build community and resilience Grants totaling $21,450 were awarded to seven proposals in MindHandHeart’s fourth funding cycle. Tue, 20 Dec 2016 12:01:01 -0500 Maisie O’Brien | MindHandHeart Initiative <p>Projects to increase students’ sense of academic belonging, create an Emergency Services Fair, and build terrariums are coming to the MIT campus, courtesy of the newest MindHandHeart Innovation Fund winners. Designed to support grassroots efforts powered by students, faculty, and staff, the <a href="" target="_blank">Innovation Fund</a> has awarded nearly $100,000 to make MIT a more welcoming, supportive, and better connected place.</p> <p>The fund is one of the flagship programs of <a href="" target="_blank">MindHandHeart</a>, an initiative sponsored by Chancellor Cynthia Barnhart and MIT Medical to increase awareness about mental health, reduce stress, and promote life and wellness skills. Applications were reviewed by MindHandHeart’s <a href="" target="_blank">working group</a> co-chairs and members as well as a selection committee comprised of representatives from the Undergraduate Association and Graduate Student Council.</p> <p>Past winners include: <a href="" target="_blank">MIT Connect</a>, a digital platform pairing like-minded members of the MIT community for platonic, one-on-one lunches; <a href="" target="_self">Random Acts of Kindness Week</a>, an event series bringing people together through spontaneous acts of goodwill and zany antics; <a href="" target="_self">Removing SAD from Winter</a>, the installation of light therapy lamps in accessible spaces on campus to combat seasonal affective disorder (SAD); and <a href="" target="_self">Puppy Lab</a>, a student-led program offering friendly canine company to help students de-stress.</p> <p>The seven Innovation Fund projects awarded this fall received a total of $21,450 and were drawn from 24 applications. “It was truly inspiring to read through the proposals and see the range of creative approaches to advancing wellness,” says <a href="" target="_blank">Maryanne Kirkbride</a>, clinical director of student life and executive administrator of MindHandHeart. “This is the fourth round of the Innovation Fund, and I continue to be moved by how our community is driven to help others and make a <a href="" target="_blank">‘better world’</a> right here at MIT.”</p> <p>One of the new Innovation Fund winners is “YOU Belong @ MIT,” a three-part awareness and training program developed by the <a href="" target="_blank">Teaching and Learning Lab</a> to increase students’ sense of academic belonging. MindHandHeart is funding the first phase of the project, consisting of a seminar hosted by an expert in the field of academic belonging and a journal club where seminar participants can further explore the topic. Janet Rankin, interim director of the Teaching and Learning Lab, writes in her application, “At MIT, we want students to thrive in all aspects of their lives. Increasing a student’s sense of belonging may help to support their mental health and may also contribute to their overall academic success.”</p> <p>Another upcoming project is the “Emergency Medical Services (EMS) Community Fair.” Championed by Shivangi Goel, an&nbsp;MIT senior and member of the MIT-EMS leadership team,&nbsp;the fair aims to foster dialogue and positive interactions between the MIT student body and the <a href="" target="_blank">MIT Police Department</a>, <a href="" target="_blank">Emergency Medical Services</a>, and other local response agencies. Goel writes, “The goal of the event is to have a fun day that results in people of our community feeling more comfortable and confident in requesting emergency help, making our community a happier and safer place.”</p> <p>Another student-led project, “Campus Preview Weekend (CPW) Athletics Alternative Programming,” is designed to improve the CPW experience of prospective student athletes. Recruits will participate in a series of icebreaker activities and a scavenger hunt. The event will serve as a fun and active alternative to informal parties, while providing students with an opportunity to connect outside their varsity teams.</p> <p>Other projects funded this cycle include: “Culinarily Cultivating Community,” a series of cooking lessons and community events based in Edgerton House; “Food, Film, and Friends,” a film series incorporating guided discussion on controversial topics explored in each movie; “Plants for the People,” an event series bringing together green-thumbed MIT students to make terrariums in a fun, communal setting; and “<a href="" target="_blank">Portraits of Resilience</a>,” a book capturing MIT community members’ personal stories of overcoming adversity, curated by Professor Daniel Jackson.</p> <p>MindHandHeart is accepting applications for the next funding cycle from March 1-31, 2017. Prospective applicants are encouraged to attend an information session on either <a href="" target="_blank">March 13</a> or <a href="" target="_blank">March 23</a>. To learn more about how MIT faculty, students, and staff members can apply for grants of up to $10,000, visit the <a href="" target="_blank">MindHandHeart Innovation Fund page</a>.</p> <p>For information on upcoming events organized by MindHandHeart Innovation Fund winners, visit: the <a href="" target="_blank">MindHandHeart events calendar</a>.&nbsp;</p> Fall 2016 Innovation Fund winners at a training session organized by MindHandHeartPhoto: Maisie O'BrienMindHandHeart, MIT Medical, Community, Mental health, Student life, Students, Faculty, Staff, Grants, Campus services, Chancellor New capsule achieves long-term drug delivery Technology could aid in elimination of malaria and treatment of many other diseases. Wed, 16 Nov 2016 14:02:33 -0500 Anne Trafton | MIT News Office <p>Researchers at MIT and Brigham and Women’s Hospital have developed a new drug capsule that remains in the stomach for up to two weeks after being swallowed, gradually releasing its drug payload. This type of drug delivery could replace inconvenient regimens that require repeated doses, which would help to overcome one of the major obstacles to treating and potentially eliminating diseases such as malaria.</p> <p>In a study described in the Nov. 16 issue of <em>Science Translational Medicine</em>, the researchers used this approach to deliver a drug called ivermectin, which they believe could aid in malaria elimination efforts. However, this approach could be applicable to many other diseases, says Robert Langer, the David H. Koch Institute Professor at MIT and a member of MIT’s Koch Institute for Integrative Cancer Research.</p> <p>“Until now, oral drugs would almost never last for more than a day,” Langer says. “This really opens the door to ultra-long-lasting oral systems, which could have an effect on all kinds of diseases, such as Alzheimer’s or mental health disorders. There are a lot of exciting things this could someday enable.”</p> <p>Langer and Giovanni Traverso, a research affiliate at the Koch Institute and a gastroenterologist and biomedical engineer at Brigham and Women’s Hospital, are the senior authors of the paper. The paper’s lead authors are former MIT postdoc Andrew Bellinger, MIT postdoc Mousa Jafari, and former MIT postdocs Tyler Grant and Shiyi Zhang. The team also includes researchers from Harvard University, Imperial College London, and the Institute for Disease Modeling in Bellevue, Washington.</p> <p>The research has led to the launching of Lyndra, a Cambridge-based company that is developing the technology with a focus on diseases for which patients would benefit the most from sustained drug delivery, including neuropsychiatric disorders, HIV, diabetes, and epilepsy.</p> <div class="cms-placeholder-content-video"></div> <p><strong>Long-term delivery</strong></p> <p>Drugs taken orally tend to work for a limited time because they pass rapidly through the body and are exposed to harsh environments in the stomach and intestines. Langer’s lab has been working for several years to overcome this challenge, with an initial focus on malaria and ivermectin, which kills any mosquito that bites a person who is taking the drug. This can greatly reduce the transmission of malaria and other mosquito-borne illnesses.</p> <p>The team envisions that long-term delivery of ivermectin could help with malaria elimination campaigns based on mass drug administration — the treatment of an entire population, whether infected or not, in an area where a disease is common. In this scenario, ivermectin would be paired with the antimalaria drug artemisinin.</p> <p>“Getting patients to take medicine day after day after day is really challenging,” says Bellinger, now a cardiologist at Brigham and Women’s Hospital and chief scientific officer at Lyndra. “If the medicine could be effective for a long period of time, you could radically improve the efficacy of your mass drug administration campaigns.”</p> <p>To achieve ultra-long-term delivery, drugs need to be packaged in a capsule that is stable enough to survive the harsh environment of the stomach and can release its contents over time. Once the drug is released, the capsule must break down and pass safely through the digestive tract.</p> <p>Working with those criteria in mind, the team designed a star-shaped structure with six arms that can be folded inward and encased in a smooth capsule. Drug molecules are loaded into the arms, which are made of a rigid polymer called polycaprolactone. Each arm is attached to a rubber-like core by a linker that is designed to eventually break down.</p> <p>After the capsule is swallowed, acid in the stomach dissolves the outer layer of the capsule, allowing the six arms to unfold. Once the star expands, it is large enough to stay in the stomach and resist the forces that would normally push an object further down the digestive tract. However, it is not large enough to cause any harmful blockage of the digestive tract.</p> <p>“When the star opens up inside the stomach, it stays inside the stomach for the duration that you need,” says Grant, now a product development engineer at Lyndra.</p> <p>In tests in pigs, the researchers confirmed that the drug is gradually released over two weeks. The linkers that join the arms to the core then dissolve, allowing the arms to break off. The pieces are small enough that they can pass harmlessly through the digestive tract.</p> <p>“This is a platform into which you can incorporate any drug,” Jafari says. “This can be used with any drug that requires frequent dosing. We can replace that dosing with a single administration.”</p> <p>This type of delivery could also help doctors to run better clinical trials by making it easier for patients to take the drugs, Zhang says. “It may help doctors and the pharma industry to better evaluate the efficacy of certain drugs, because currently a lot of patients in clinical trials have serious medication adherence problems that will mislead the clinical studies,” he says.</p> <p><strong>Amplified effects</strong></p> <p>The new study includes mathematical modeling done by researchers at Imperial College London and the Institute for Disease Modeling to predict the potential impact of this approach. The models suggest that if this technology were used to deliver ivermectin along with antimalaria treatments to 70 percent of a population in a mass drug administration campaign, disease transmission could be reduced the same amount as if 90 percent were treated with antimalaria treatments alone.</p> <p>“What we showed is that we stand to significantly amplify the effect of those campaigns,” Traverso says. “The introduction of this kind of system could have a substantial impact on the fight against malaria and transform clinical care in general by ensuring patients receive their medication.”</p> <p>Peter Agre, director of the Johns Hopkins Malaria Research Institute, who was not involved in the research, described the new approach as a “remarkable” advance that could improve treatment of malaria and any other disease that requires long-term treatment.</p> <p>“If you could reduce the frequency of dosing, and one treatment would continue to release medicine until the course is completed, that would be very beneficial,” Agre says.</p> <p>Researchers led by Traverso are working on developing similar capsules to deliver drugs against other tropical diseases, as well as HIV and tuberculosis.</p> <p>The research was funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, the National Institutes of Health, and the Max Planck Research Award.</p> The star-shaped drug delivery device, held here by Giovanni Traverso, a Koch Institute research affiliate, can be folded inward and encased in a smooth capsule. Once ingested, the device delivers a full drug payload gradually over weeks or even months. Photo: Melanie GonickResearch, Drug delivery, Malaria, Mental health, Disease, Chemical engineering, Medicine, Koch Institute, School of Engineering, Institute for Medical Engineering and Science (IMES), National Institutes of Health (NIH) Kay Tye Receives the Society for Neuroscience Young Investigator Award Picower Neuroscientist recognized for her work on emotional circuitry of the brain. Tue, 15 Nov 2016 17:20:00 -0500 Joshua Sariñana | Picower Institute for Learning and Memory <p>On Nov. 5, the Society for Neuroscience named <a href="" target="_blank">Kay M. Tye</a> the recipient of its <a href="" target="_blank">Young Investigator Award</a>, which recognizes outstanding achievements and contributions by a young neuroscientist. Tye, assistant professor of brain and cognitive sciences at MIT and a member of the <a href="" target="_blank">Picower Institute for Learning and Memory</a>, studies the neural circuitry and activity responsible for infusing experiences with either positive or negative emotions.</p> <p>“She has profoundly changed the field of neuroscience both by initiating a new circuit-based approach to study how the brain works and by bringing to light an entirely new thinking on how the brain processes emotional value,” says Li-Huei Tsai, director of the Picower Institute for Learning and Memory. “Her vision is original, innovative, and transformative.”</p> <p>Tye’s laboratory uses several advanced techniques to interrogate brain circuitry underlying emotions. More specifically, her group synthesizes electrophysiology, pharmacology, microscopy, behavioral training, and <a href="" target="_blank">optogenetics</a> to finely tease out the networks that specifically relate to positive and negative emotional states, also known as valence.</p> <p>“Kay’s dedication to studying how emotional and motivational associations get assigned to environmental cues and in identifying the specific neuronal circuits that process this information and their divergence points to encode positive and negative valence, promises to provide important mechanistic insight into our understanding … [of] psychiatric disorders,” says James DiCarlo, head of the MIT Department of Brain and Cognitive Sciences.</p> <p>The specific circuit that Tye studies includes (but is not limited to) the dopaminergic system and the amygdala. Although dopamine has historically been viewed as a neurotransmitter responsible for attributing positive valence to experiences, her lab has clearly shown that it is also important for negative valence. Conversely, her work shows that the amygdala — a region primarily studied in the storage and recall of negative experiences — plays a critical role in attributing positive valance to experiences.</p> <p>“Understanding how the brain processes valence is fundamental to understanding the numerous disease states related to anxiety, depression, addiction, feeding, social interaction, and learning and memory” Tye says.</p> <p>In directly relating neural circuitry to emotional processing Tye’s work threads multiple dimensions of neuroscience, from molecules to complex behavior, and overcomes some of the limitations of correlational work. “The Young Investigator Award is a huge honor because it includes all fields of neuroscience and I am very grateful for this recognition,” Tye says.</p> MIT Assistant Professor Kay Tye (left) receives the Young Investigator Award from Society for Neuroscience President Hollis Cline.Photo courtesy of Kay Tye. Faculty, Awards, honors and fellowships, Picower Institute, Brain and cognitive sciences, School of Science, Optogenetics, Neuroscience, Mental health, Learning, Memory Creating therapies for Alzheimer&#039;s disease by targeting neural circuits Study finds a complex series of molecular, cellular, circuit and network-level changes contribute to the progression of Alzheimer&#039;s. Wed, 09 Nov 2016 18:15:01 -0500 Helen Knight | Picower Institute for Learning and Memory <p>Age-related dementia will affect 10 percent of people in the U.S. within their lifetime.</p> <p>Alzheimer’s disease, the most prevalent type of dementia — and one for which there is no effective treatment or cure —&nbsp;causes a progressive and devastating loss of memory and cognition.</p> <p>For the past 25 years, efforts to develop a treatment for the disease have focused on the so-called “amyloid cascade hypothesis.” This proposes that amyloid-β (Aβ) peptides build up and clump together to form plaques in the brain, creating a cascade effect that ultimately leads to neuronal death and cognitive dysfunction.</p> <p>However, despite evidence of a link between amyloid-β and Alzheimer’s disease, efforts to target the peptide have so far failed to reverse this cognitive decline.</p> <p>Now, in a review paper published in the journal <em>Nature</em>, researchers at the Picower Institute for Learning and Memory at MIT argue that while elevated amyloid-β levels may initiate the sequence of events that lead to the disease, a complex series of other molecular, cellular, circuit and network-level changes contribute to its progression. What’s more, the researchers argue, these changes cannot be reversed simply by controlling amyloid-β levels.</p> <p>Many of the treatments designed to target amyloid-β use antibodies to clear plaque from the brain, and are very effective in doing so, according to <a href="" target="_blank">Li-Huei Tsai</a>, the Picower Professor of Neuroscience and director of the <a href="" target="_blank">Picower Institute for Learning and Memory</a> at MIT.</p> <p>“But these clinical trials fail because patients don’t show improvement in cognitive function,” Tsai says. “So there is a disconnection there, in that when you clear the amyloid-β, you still don’t see the positive outcome that you are expecting.”</p> <p>This is underscored by observations indicating that levels of amyloid-β in the brain appear to stop increasing relatively early in the disease’s progression, when cognitive impairment is still mild, she says.</p> <p>“Amyloid-β starts to build up in the brain 20 years or more before the person starts to show clinical symptoms, and at some point the levels plateau, and the person can still be functionally normal.”</p> <p>What is needed is a greater understanding of how the circuitry of the brain responds to the initial increase in amyloid-β levels, and how the plaques influence the brain’s network activity over time, including its connections, circuits, and information processing, she says.</p> <p>Studies have shown that amyloid-β accumulates significantly in an area of the brain known as the default mode network, a group of connected regions that are active during thinking, remembering, and planning.</p> <p>Research has also shown that levels of amyloid-β are closely linked to neuronal activity. Blocking neuronal activity leads to a decrease in amyloid-β, for example, while increased activity raises levels of the peptide, researchers have found.</p> <p>“However, at a more detailed mapping level, we still don’t know in which circuit or brain region amyloid-β starts to build up, how it propagates from one region to the next, and how brain activity may regulate its propagation,” Tsai says. “So these are all very important questions that the field still has to address.”</p> <p>Understanding which areas of the brain are initially affected by amyloid-β would help researchers to better target potential treatments, according to Jay Penney, a postdoc in Tsai’s laboratory who co-authored the paper alongside Tsai and graduate student Rebecca Canter.</p> <p>For example, the only treatments for the disease that have so far been approved by the FDA target specific neurotransmitter systems within the brain, and although these show only limited effect, they demonstrate that altering circuit or network activity has the potential to reduce cognitive dysfunction.</p> <p>Small-scale human studies using deep-brain stimulation have also shown promising results in improving cognition.</p> <p>Better understanding the early parts of the brain that are affected by amyloid-β and other types of pathology that develop in Alzheimer’s might inform researchers of where to look for initial signs of the developing disease, Penney says.</p> <p>“That could potentially allow us to start treatments that target the original cause of the pathology for instance, and reduce amyloid-β levels earlier, and then simultaneously we could also target specific circuits or brain regions, to hopefully improve cognitive function,” he says.</p> <p>It would also allow clinicians to identify people at risk of the disease before they develop any cognitive dysfunction, he says.</p> <p>Although efforts to target amyloid as a therapy for Alzheimer's&nbsp;are ongoing, many experts believe this is most likely to succeed in the very early, preclinical, stages of the disease, prior to the onset of symptoms or when symptoms are very mild, according to Brad Dickerson, an associate professor of neurology at Harvard Medical School, who was not involved in the research.</p> <p>“In the more than 5 million Americans with Alzheimer’s disease dementia, we desperately need better treatments to improve symptoms and to slow progression,” Dickerson says. “The variety of approaches discussed here highlight some of the broad portfolio of ideas that are being pursued.”</p> Beta-amyloid plaque deposits (red) disrupt mylelin (green) organization in the brain and activate microglia (orange), driving the inflammation, neurodegeneration, and cognitive disfunction associated with Alzheimer's disease.Image: Rebecca CanterPicower Institute, Research, Neuroscience, Brain and cognitive sciences, Aging, Dementia, Mental health, Genetics, Learning, Memory, School of Science, Alzheimer's