I am currently a PhD Student in the Brain and Cognitive Sciences Graduate program at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. My research interests have always been divided between two seemingly unrelated fields with the hopes of uniting them in the future.
The architecture of the mind has always fascinated me. What is consciousness? Why is it possible that consuming specific chemicals can change one's perception of reality? How do traumatic experiences alter the brain's function? Are there ways to mitigate the onset of PTSD in soldiers at war?
Currently, we lack a feasible way to ask these questions scientifically because there is no way to accurately quantify human brain activity at the temporal and spatial resolution of functioning neurons. My quest for answers has led me to pursue a second research interest: biomedical imaging.
Our best functional brain imaging comes in three forms: fMRI, MEG/EEG, and PET. Each modality has its drawbacks. fMRI doesn't actually measure brain activity, but rather the change in oxygen levels in the blood presumably due to the firing of neurons. The drop in oxygen after neural activity is generally 2-5 seconds later, which can only be described as a shadow of brain activation; not the real thing.
MEG/EEG has a far greater temporal resolution, on the order of milliseconds, but suffers from spatial localization. Imagine a domed auditorium with hundreds of microphones dangling from the ceiling. If a singer starts signing on the stage, the array of microphones should pinpoint where she is, but if she walks towards the center of the auditorium, it becomes nearly impossible to precisely determine her location. Likewise, MEG/EEG suffers from the inability to localize deep-brain activity.
PET tracers labelled with neurotransmitters can illuminate where those types of neurons exist, but the chemical specificity offered by PET is hindered both in time (images are typically five-minute exposures) and in space (very poor resolution).
If we ever hope to understand the brain at a more functional level, we must develop better functional imaging devices. It is my goal in life to develop that technology, and use imaging to help diagnose and treat mental illnesses like we do with every other medical condition. In particular, I want to help treat veterans still struggling after their war.
After serving in Iraq in 2003 and 2004, I've seen and experienced what it's like to struggle as a soldier returning home. They say that on average 22 veterans commit suicide per day in our country. While that rate may have fallen since, any veteran's suicide after fighting a war for our country is unacceptable. That soldier is a casualty of the war. If we wouldn't leave a wounded soldier behind on the battlefield, we shouldn't leave them behind at home either. A better understanding of the brain could offer more reliable options for treating trauma in those who have volunteered their lives to defend ours.