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Neuroscience and the Quest to Improve Intelligence

For the past two years, I’ve been fortunate to participate as a guest judge on a popular Chinese TV show called “The Brain,” in which contestants perform extraordinary feats of memory, arithmetic, and other mental challenges. The abilities of these contestants are truly remarkable, and the show has certainly pushed me to think about the ability of the human brain to dramatically improve mental skills through rigorous training.

With the Solve Brain Health Challenge deadline just a few days away, I am excited to soon see the breadth of proposed solutions for improving brain health. Here at the McGovern Institute for Brain Research at MIT, we think the brain is the defining challenge of our time. If we could develop novel ways of treating or preventing brain disorders, or new methods of boosting our own brain capabilities, the benefits to society could be enormous. With its billions of neurons and connections that we have just begun to understand, the brain truly is the final frontier of science.

Understanding how we might enhance our own minds and reduce the effects of devastating brain disorders are among the great challenges in today’s world. Developing new tools to help us unravel the brain’s mechanisms, diagnose diseases faster and more accurately, and test interventions that can improve mental resilience are key to making progress. Some of the questions we are asking in McGovern Institute labs are sure to be many of the same ones that Solve participants are focused on in building their solutions. Among them are:

  • Can a cell phone help doctors track symptoms of patients with mental illness?
  • How can classroom curricula be enhanced to help kids become better problem solvers?
  • Are there early biomarkers of diseases such as Parkinson’s hidden in our voices?
  • Could we intervene and “re-wire” the brain of a child at risk for mental illness before symptoms manifest in adolescence and young adulthood?
  • What are the best ways of keeping our minds sharp throughout life?

Progress in understanding complex problems like these is driven by technological innovation, and the most important technological advances will arise from interdisciplinary collaboration. The brain is incredibly complex, and only through pushing disciplines towards each other can we hope to make progress. Marrying engineering with biology, medicine with computer science, management with cognitive science—this is the way we can truly make significant leaps in improving brain health for everyone.

All of us at the McGovern Institute are optimistic that society can design interventions that raise the brain’s cognitive abilities and help mitigate the effects of brain disorders. A multi-disciplinary approach will be critical to long-lasting solutions. The Solve Brain Health Challenge is an excellent example of how encouraging innovative ideas from a wide breadth of disciplines could help us move in the right direction. Along with the other judges, I look forward to seeing the ideas you propose to improve brain health! 

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