What should I ask Ed Boyden?

I will be doing a Conversations with Tyler with him, no associated public event.  Here is his MIT bio:

Ed Boyden is Y. Eva Tan Professor in Neurotechnology at MIT, associate professor of Biological Engineering and Brain and Cognitive Sciences at MIT’s Media Lab and McGovern Institute for Brain Research, and was recently selected to be an Investigator of the Howard Hughes Medical Institute (2018). He leads the Synthetic Neurobiology Group, which develops tools for analyzing and repairing complex biological systems such as the brain, and applies them systematically to reveal ground truth principles of biological function as well as to repair these systems. These technologies include expansion microscopy, which enables complex biological systems to be imaged with nanoscale precision; optogenetic tools, which enable the activation and silencing of neural activity with light; robotic methods for directed evolution that are yielding new synthetic biology reagents for dynamic imaging of physiological signals; novel methods of noninvasive focal brain stimulation; and new methods of nanofabrication using shrinking of patterned materials to create nanostructures with ordinary lab equipment. He co-directs the MIT Center for Neurobiological Engineering, which aims to develop new tools to accelerate neuroscience progress.

Here are other Ed Boyden links.  So what should I ask him?


What does he think about deep learning? Brain emulations? AGI? How much more intelligent could brains be if they were engineered by humans instead of evolution?

Who is a better scientist and/or more interesting, him, or Buckaroo Banzai?

Please ask Dr. Boyden about research regarding "The Dark Matter of the Brain". This is a link to a recent paper https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s00429-019-01835-7
Thank you.

This looks really interesting. Yes, a question to Ed Boyden about this would be good.

Love your podcasts. But one small criticism.

They feel like interviews at times, and not conversations.

Can you keep that in mind while you're conducting them?

It's the conversation Tyler wants to have

mebbe you like this one better
things the american psychological association missed
towards the end when the sociologist is speaking at the big meeting
can you count about a dozen well defined cheap psychological crowd manipulation techniques usually associated with hucksterism/cults
see how effective they are on the young sociology students?

isn't this the sorta stuff college presidents should be able to recognize?

you get the blessing of the college president
that is a lotta implicit leverage
there is a masters degree awaitin
in evaluatin
this tape

A follow-up to Joe's question. Whole brain emulation (WBE): science fiction or science?

How wide is the gap in capability between typical current ER (within minutes) and hospital (within hours) diagnostic brain imaging technology (e.g. CAT scan and MRI) and the best technology in the lab ? How rapidly is better technology being deployed?

What other neural diagnostic or assessment technology might become standard in the next decade?

How does he see the efforts to diagnose, understand, and prevent/treat Alzheimer's? I was visiting a relative in a memory care facility yesterday, and the impact of this disease is catastrophic.

@Engineer - re Alzheimer's, it's only logically catastrophic if you assume the patient still remembers how they were before, akin to what they say about coma patients (they can tell they are in a coma). Of course it's also catastrophic to next-of-kin who have to witness the degeneration (as I did with my demented uncle) and to society if the victim was a brilliant scientist or added value to society. Otherwise it's no big loss.

Its not a step function transition - just fine to insensate. People generally go through a period where they are aware of the progressive cognitive and prospective physical decline. I'd say it catastrophic to the individual, and in many cases takes years to play out.

The incidence of the disease is actually pretty high. The lifetime risk for Alzheimer's is about 10% for men and 20% for women. Of course, many people will die of other causes before developing it. If you make it to 70, chances are about 1 in 3 you will develop dementia before death.

The average stay in memory care (which implies 24 hour supervision) is about 18 months, for those who choose that option.

I made it about two-thirds of the way through "Emperor of Maladies" before getting too depressed to read further. Towards the end, the author was running out of ways not to say, we're all pre-cancerous as the price for having a body that repairs itself, and there's no way to turn off that cellular switch without killing the organism.

I think you'll hear the same thing about Alzheimer's in a few more years. Neural cells all have an expiration date and neural tissue does not repair itself. The mystery is why some people's brains wear out faster. The answer is probably in a genetic code that cannot be re-written without destroying the cell.

A great-uncle with advanced Parkinson's (though not Alzheimer's) saw the way things were headed and shot himself. When they found him, the pistol had been fired three times, so it seems his muscle control was pretty bad but not his will.

A professional colleague called his office at age 60 on the way to a hearing and told his secretary he had no idea where he was. They came and got him and that was the end of his independent living. Tragic.

what can he do using his professional skills to help children born with developmental disability?

10,000 hours of pratice!

In the future, could you intercept your opponents thoughts at the chessboard and use them to anticipate their next move? And how could one stop this form of cheating? Maybe by wearing a tin foil hat? A Faraday cage!

You may care to warn him if he finds duodenal stem cells of any interest:



LSD--recapitulation of infantile perception or no?


Has Boyden or anyone of his acquaintance added to the brain imaging studies of subjects on LSD that appeared in PNAS almost three years ago? (see the sidebar of the strannikov post for a link to the relevant PNAS study)

His thoughts, if studied, on meditation efficacy. What medication and foods help improve focus/attention? If you can dissuade him from going into activities that obviously condition the mind i.e. reading, meditation, music, or any focus demanding hobby.

As a layman when i read about the brain and how it works, or sometimes doesn't, often i'll run into something that makes me stop. Often strange, counter intuitive, a glimpse into something very complex and strange. Ask him to describe some of those moments.

Is the such thing as the observer effect when studying the brain?

Is brain research going to require or produce a new conceptual, mathematical or logical model? Something akin to Newton inventing calculus, relativity, quantum theory, or even chaos theory which provides a way to categorize chaotic systems. All the either provided a tool to advance understanding or a framework within which advancement of knowledge was possible.

Approach the conversation with the goal of making yourself and all of us very uncomfortable. We all have one of the brain things in our head, we understand little of how it works.

"We all have one of the brain things in our head, we understand little of how it works."

Of course, that is relative. Tyler could ask what has been learned from 1999 and what is hoped to be understood better by 2029.

Great question.

Many of the things he has worked on allow observation without intrusive or often dangerous procedures.

As a trained neurobiologist, what does Boyden make of the late Thomas Szasz's crusade against fanciful notions concerning "the illnesses of mentalities" (as against fanciful notions concerning what "the healths of mentalities" do or might consist of) and his critique of the absence of neuroscience concerns in much of what passes for "psychotherapy"?

Granted, efforts towards psychotherapy preceded the advent of neuroscience: but in what century or millennium might "psychotherapy" be based solely upon actual brain physiology and neuropathology, instead of invented appropriations of highly dubious qualities routinely injected into public discourse?

Ed Boyden is what the Japanese call a "national treasure." You should ask him about his ideas on (1) anti-moonshots - what are the areas where it is premature to launch a big push because of lack of fundamental understanding; (2) the approaches to problem-solving, problem decomposition, and backward chaining that he teaches his grad students and postdocs - and what it would take to convince him to pair up with a good writer/ethnographer to capture his tacit knowledge on this; (3) his strategy for architecting multidisciplinary collaborations; (4) his role in achieving the goals of the BRAIN Initiative; (5) Why the NIH underinvests in development of tools, and how NIH could get better at that; (6) What he would do if he were not limited by the resources currently under his control; (7) how we could get more unconventional ideas for Alzheimer's - like his work with Tsai on visual stimulation; (8) why old journal articles are under-rated, and what his strategy is for mining the existing literature.

According to his understanding of the brain, how many generations does it take for IQ differences to occur among populations? And why?

Is the increase in dementia mostly attributable to (1) a new or spreading disorder affecting the brain or (2) people living longer. Neurology is having its day: the neurology institute at the university I attended just received a $40 million gift.

How does cognitive neuroscience explain the flash of inspiration?

Senolytics are a hot topic in longevity research. (Removing aged cells that are spewing inflammation factors and other substances into the rest of the body.) Is there an equivalent in neurology, or might there be soon? If there are, could that somehow be eventually be generalized to other tissues in the body? (The antibiotic Azithromycin as a senolytic made a splash in the news recently.) The Mayo Clinic published research looking at senolytics and neurodegeneration in Nature (link at article.) https://endpts.com/mayo-team-spotlights-the-role-of-senescent-cells-in-neurodegeneration-starting-down-a-pathway-that-may-lead-to-alzheimers/ ..

Another vote for his thoughts on brain emulation. And, what is consciousness? What is the lowest organism that he considers conscious? Could a sufficiently complex cell culture of some sort ever achieve consciousness?

There's a lot of excitement about the future of Brain-Computer Interfaces in human patients, but the field is struggling with a big engineering bottleneck. In a best-case scenario, a patient might receive a series of 2-4 invasive neural implants that allow for listening to and stimulating ~400 different locations within the brain. To reach its full potential, BCI will need ways to communicating with the brain that are much higher resolution and that span a much larger number of sites.

What kinds of advances does Ed think are on the horizon for neural engineering? What kinds of approaches look most promising for human patients - electrical, optical, or something else entirely? Does this bottleneck place a fundamental limit on the prospects of BCI, or is something the field can overcome?

How is it someone can sense when they're being watched? You ever observe a nubile young woman from an angle, and all of a sudden she turns and looks right at you? What's the neurological mechanism here?

What does he personally do - exercise, diet, pill-taking (cf. Ray Kurzweil) etc - to maximise healthy, active physical and mental longevity.

Tyler won't ask this, so I'll help out.

What looks promising is NR and NMN at 500 mg a day ($4) but 250 mg ($2) may help if over 50. Both are vitamin B3 derivatives and tested to be safe up to 2,000 mg a day.

I'd like to know his thoughts on structural patterns of autism.

who is doing the best/any work that may lead to replacement retinas?

What does he think about inventing a new brain-sensing technique, given how limited EEG, fMRI, and other current brain-sensing techniques are in the data they yield about the brain activity?

We want groundbreaking scientific research to be undertaken, but the negative consequences of failing at a high-risk research project are very high (especially for less well-established individuals and groups). What can smaller labs do to socialize the risks and rewards of experimental science?

More generally, I'd be curious to hear Tyler ask about the economics of research: what behaviors current incentives lead to, the inefficiencies due to e.g. poor information flow and lack of collaboration w.r.t. producing lots of good science, and how we can do better.

My question is about accelerating science!

I know Ed and others are very interested in this but there are no large-scale efforts to really speed things up.

I wonder where Ed sees the main block! Is it giving top scientists access to large funding streams (e.g. Ed had to go to OpenPhil for funding to develop expansion microscopy)? Or getting the public interested? Or educating students on cutting-edge work? Or.. ?

One imagines it's a problem that a large amount of money could solve (if applied correctly) but is this really the case?

How can we help?

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