Reverse-Engineering the Brain


Joy Hirsch, Professor of Psychiatry and of Neurobiology, has established and directs the Research in the Brain Function Laboratory at Yale University.  According to its websiteResearch in the Brain Function Laboratory  has "made fundamental contributions to understanding the neural processes for cognitive control that enable flexible goal directed behaviors including the resolution of conflict". 

Dr. Hirsch joined Yale from Columbia and, before that, Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center and the Weill College of Medicine at Cornell University where she founded the fMRI laboratory and pioneered the introduction of brain-mapping procedures for neurosurgical planning. Using fMRI, her laboratory made fundamental contributions to the understanding of sensation and perception, language and the cognitive processes, and brain regions that are modified by specific drugs. These initial studies were built upon research done by Dr. Hirsch as a professor at Yale University School of Medicine, where she focused on the cortical mechanisms directly involved in human visual processing, serving as a foundation to connect the advantages of fMRI to ongoing and new research directions at Columbia University.

Hirsch is also a curator of The Brain: The Inside Story on view at the American Museum of Natural History.


  • Transcript


Joy Hirsch: None of us have crystal balls, and there may well be new technologies out there that we’re not aware of.  But there are some advances that are on the horizon, and these advances, in my opinion, involve integration of known technologies more than new technologies. 

There is a relatively new development that suggests, if we really understand the patterns of activity in the brain that are elicited by specific tasks - say a decision task, a language task, a problem-solving task or just a perceptual task - that one could look at those patterns and go backwards and tell an audience what was going on in the brain.  This is sometimes referred to as “brain reading,” and it’s a very interesting field emerging that takes very seriously the signatures or global patterns of the brain, uses them to entrain algorithms and then to predict what the brain was doing. 

The integration of structural imaging - higher and higher resolution, of course - is extremely valuable, so as our scanners become higher field strengths we can resolve higher granularity of the anatomical details, almost down to the cellular levels. 

Higher field strengths also allow us to look at the connectivities of the actual nerve fibers that connect specific areas of the brain, so we’ll be able to see better pictures of the brain.

Computational techniques and faster, bigger, better computers are extraordinarily valuable in analyzing all of this data.  The faster our computers are, the more sophisticated and complex our algorithms are, the better we can mine the data to interpret what we’re seeing.

Combining the high-resolution techniques with cardiovascular-based methodologies with the high-temporal resolutions of the electromagnetic-based techniques, such as EEG and MEG, provide us both dynamic temporal advantages with spatial advantages.  And so the combination of these two technologies in the future, I think will add another dimension to our ability to look at structure-function questions in the brain.

Directed / Produced by
Jonathan Fowler & Elizabeth Rodd