Memory is a mental time machine, allowing us to travel back in time, and while it may seem abstract, memory is also physical, according to Thursday’s convocation speaker, Steve Ramirez, a graduate student in MIT’s Brain and Cognitive Sciences Department.
Mr. Ramirez, who has gained recognition for his research on memory and the brain, said the challenge that inspired his scientific inquiry was how to locate something as seemingly abstract as a memory in the “three-pound lump of meatloaf stuck between the ears.”
He described a “revolution” in today’s scientific study of the brain using light technology called optogenetics. An innovative investigation by Mr. Ramirez and MIT fellow Xu Liu used optogenetics to locate and subsequently activate the brain cells of lab mice where memory is stored. Using that light technology, they manipulated the brain cells to reactivate a memory, to erase a memory, and to create a false memory in the mice.
Mr. Ramirez displayed a photo that exhibited, physically, how the researchers directly activated the cells that house memory in the hippocampus. When activated in the lab, the cells glowed an electric green.
“As abstract as it feels, a memory actually has an appearance,” Ramirez stated with conviction.
He went on to describe how revolutionary optogenetics research may lead to better treatments for brain diseases that drug therapies over the last 50 years have had only limited success in treating.
“It’s possible that some disorders of the brain, such as depression, may need physical intervention — it’s just not as obvious as a broken leg,” Ramirez explained.
Mr. Ramirez taught a course at Tuft’s University titled, “Neuroscience and Hollywood,” but he had not presented to high school students before his visit to Loomis. “I love working with students,” he said. “They generate a great buzz that’s energizing and exciting. This is the first time I’ve addressed a group from high school, and I hope to inspire some of their passion for science.”
When he was a high school student, Ramirez admitted, “I had zero idea of what I wanted to do. I found neuroscience completely by accident.”
He shared this advice for students as they explore their future courses of study and professions: “Throw yourself off the deep end – okay not literally. Go work in a lab, a law firm, or at Google — really get your hands wet. You’ll either love it or you’ll hate it, but the experience will shed light on what you want or don’t want to do.”
The convocation sparked the interest of sophomores Yuri Kovshov and Ilya Yudkovshy, who waited in line with a number of students to speak with Mr. Ramirez after the talk.
“I thought his presentation was so interesting in terms of the possibilities for real-world treatments in medicine — for example post-traumatic stress disorders,” noted Ilya.
Senior Penelope Shao also attended a Wednesday evening discussion on campus with Mr. Ramirez, and she sought him out on Thursday. “I thought his presentation was mind-blowing, and his advice was crucial for me as I am a senior trying to decide what field of study to pursue. After listening to his talk, I will definitely give neuroscience consideration. The real-life applications really stood out for me,” she said.
In 2013, Mr. Ramirez and Mr. Liu’s breakthrough research was featured in a Science Magazine cover story titled “Creating a False Memory in the Hippocampus.” Afterwards, they received the 2014 Smithsonian American Ingenuity Award. Mr. Ramirez and Mr. Liu’s engaging TED talk on their research has been widely viewed. Mr. Ramirez also was named one of MIT Technology Review’s “35 Innovators Under 35”, and one of Pacific Standard’s “Top 30 Thinkers Under 30.”His visit was part of the Hubbard Speakers Series, made possible by a gift from Robert Hubbard ’47. The series this year is focusing on the theme of “Memory.”