This October, faculty, students, and supporters of the Department of Brain and Cognitive Sciences (BCS) gathered for the eighth annual Champions of the Brain Fellows reception. For the second year in a row, the event was held virtually. But no Zoom hiccups could stop the department from hosting a rousing celebration of the exciting research being done by BCS graduate students — and the department champions who help make it possible.

The event began with opening remarks by the dean of the School of Science Nergis Mavalvala thanking the supporters who “make it possible for us to train the next generation of scientists.” She then introduced Department Head Michale Fee, the Glen V. and Phyllis F. Dorflinger Professor of Brain and Cognitive Sciences.

Fee highlighted the vision of the BCS Department to undertake groundbreaking research — both basic and applied — to understand how the human brain works at all levels. He positioned graduate students as the “engine” of the department and stressed the need for stable, centralized funding to foster the “mind-blowing” research they do.

“Sustaining our vision means building an outstanding community of faculty, students, and researchers.”

Michale Fee

“Sustaining our vision means building an outstanding community of faculty, students, and researchers, and ensuring they have the support and resources to continue making the great discoveries that they make every day,” said Fee.

Fee then introduced three students who have all benefited from fellow funding this year to give a taste of the “wide range and amazing questions” on which BCS students work.

First up was Greta Tuckute, a second year student in the lab of Evelina Fedorenko, the Middleton Career Development Professor of Neuroscience. Tuckute is supported this year by BCS champion Eran Broshy ’79 and studies the combination of brain regions called the language network. It’s been difficult historically to study the development of the language network since most developmental leaps occur in toddlers. Tuckute presented a case study of an adult woman who is missing her left temporal lobe, a region of the brain crucial to language development.

Tuckute found no language activity in the woman’s left frontal lobe, suggesting that temporal regions of the brain are necessary to wire up the later-developing frontal regions of the language network. However, according Tuckute, apart from not having a left temporal lobe, the woman is completely neurotypical (and has even learned a foreign language), illustrating that a fully functioning language network can develop with just one hemisphere of the brain.

The next presenter was Djuna von Maydell, a third-year student in the labs of Professor Li-Huei Tsai and Manolis Kellis a professor of computer science at MIT’s Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Lab. Von Maydell is supported by BCS champions Nancy and Jeffrey Halis ’76. Her work focuses on a mutation in the APOE4 gene that’s one of most prevalent genetic risk factors for Alzheimer’s disease and changes the structure of a molecular protein that’s crucial for brain function. She’s found that the mutation causes cholesterol to be distributed throughout cells, rather than concentrated along the cell membrane as expected, particularly in what’s called oligodendrocyte cells. This ineffective distribution of cholesterol could be limit the ability of those cells to do their jobs of helping neurons in the brain fire efficiently, leading to some of the deficits associated with Alzheimer’s.

The final presenter was Karla Alejandra Montejo, a second year in the lab of Dr. Emery Brown, the Edward Hood Taplin Professor of Medical Engineering and Computational Neuroscience. Montejo is supported by BCS champions Russell ’84 and Beth SM ’84 Siegelman. She uses statistical models to understand patterns of brain activity under anesthesia. Montejo is interested in the metabolic effects of anesthesia, and how the availability of energy in brain cells can explain patterns of brain activity in a state of deep unconsciousness. Understanding the drivers behind patterns of brain signals during different phases, especially deep unconsciousness, can help researchers and anesthesiologists understand potential side effects of anesthesia, including the cognitive deficits some patients experience when they regain consciousness.

After breakout sessions to allow faculty, students, and supporters to engage with one another in a small group setting, Barrie Zesiger, an MIT Corporation life member emerita and founder of the Champions of the Brain program, closed out the event. Zesiger’s goal is to be able to give BCS students the security and comfort of full funding so they can continue to pursue bold research that pushes the bounds of the field.

“I want to honor the wonderful role that graduate students play in what I call the ‘MIT innovation machine,’” said Zesiger.

The annual Champions of the Brain Fellows event honors donors who commit $70,000 or more through an endowed, expendable, or corporate gift to support graduate students at the forefront of cutting-edge research in BCS.

Leah Campbell | Graduate Program in Science Writing

This article first appeared in the Winter 2022 issue of Science at MIT.