Getting Smarter About the Mind

A new consortium to explore the inner workings of our brains will further Daniel Dennett’s legacy at Tufts
Jeff Stibel. A new consortium to explore the inner workings of our brains will further Daniel Dennett’s legacy at Tufts
“I was inspired to create a new consortium at Tufts that will serve as a center of gravity, to explore important and groundbreaking cognitive and brain science issues through teaching and research,” said Jeff Stibel. Photo: Courtesy of Jeff Stibel
September 10, 2020

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Daniel Dennett has inspired many people, but perhaps none more than his former student Jeff Stibel, A95, an entrepreneur and brain scientist. Now Stibel is ensuring that the influential philosopher’s legacy will continue at Tufts, with a generous gift to create a consortium at the university focused on cognitive and brain science.

Stibel’s gift will launch the Stibel Dennett Consortium for Brain and Cognitive Science, which will bring together important research and teaching in the field. The consortium will cross university departments and schools, including psychology, biology, philosophy, education, engineering, and medicine, and will serve students, faculty, alumni, and the wider community.

“I was inspired to create a new consortium at Tufts that will serve as a center of gravity, to explore important and groundbreaking cognitive and brain science issues through teaching and research,” said Stibel, who is the author of two books and a USA Today column on the workings of the mind.

With his fellow partners Stibel has also given to the university BrainGate, Inc., a company that holds intellectual property enabling technologies to read and translate brain signals through a computer interface. The brain's motor cortex sends out electrical pulses that can be recorded by this technology and decoded into motor commands. In the future, the company’s technology could help people with spinal injuries or locked-in syndrome control devices, such as a robotic arm or an exoskeleton that would allow a paralyzed person to walk.

The donation of BrainGate, Inc., combined with Stibel’s support for faculty, promises to spur new research at the university. Stibel’s gift includes funds to endow two professorships in the School of Arts and Sciences. Gina Kuperberg has been appointed the inaugural Dennett Stibel Professor of Cognitive Science, and Stephanie Badde has been recruited to the faculty as the Stibel Family Assistant Professor of Brain and Cognitive Science.

Kuperberg and Badde plan to build upon the BrainGate technology, exploring a deeper understanding of how the brain processes language as well as how the brain gathers information from our senses and tells our body how to move. Other faculty at Tufts also plan to explore research opportunities related to the BrainGate intellectual property.

“What Jeff Stibel has given us is priceless,” said James Glaser, dean of the School of Arts and Sciences. “The two professorships have enabled us to recognize the excellence of Gina Kuperberg, an important cognitive science faculty member, and to recruit a talented new colleague to the program. And the gift of BrainGate, Inc., will help solidify Tufts’ international reputation as a locus of excellence in cognitive science.”

In just one of its potential applications, the Stibel gift may lead to a deeper understanding of the very nature of human memory, said Michael Levin, A92, the Vannevar Bush Professor of Biology and director of the Allen Discovery Center at Tufts . Levin studies regenerative biology—the process of replacing or "regenerating" human or animal cells, tissues, or organs to restore or establish normal function.

Advances in regenerative medicine depend on understanding electrical anatomical memory, which is like memory in the brain. BrainGate’s technology could offer key insights into how cells communicate to signal growth, adaptation to trauma, or even the storage of memories.

Using the technology to interpret the communication between cells, “we could find out how memories are stored and encoded in tissue, and learn to decode them,” Levin said. “We also could learn how memories can survive remodeling of the tissue, how memories can be moved or copied, and how memories can belong to a unified self.” Levin is currently collaborating with Dennett on research and a publication related to cellular memory and cognition

Tufts will launch the Stibel Dennett Consortium in the fall, through an online event for the Tufts community with other programming to follow.

Angela Nelson can be reached at angela.nelson@tufts.edu.

New Research Gets a Lift

Stephanie Badde, Stibel Family Assistant Professor of Brain and Cognitive Science: “We think our senses give us a good impression of the physical reality around us, but that's just not true. The information we’re getting is actually very spotty—it's as if we’re wearing blurry glasses with a small hole in the middle. The brain performs a lot of work to take in this input and give us the impression we have. My research asks, How does the brain do this miracle?

“With the BrainGate patents, we hope to find out more about how movements and sensory information are connected in the brain, and how this might be leveraged so that people can regain the sense of touch and sense of body posture where they’ve lost them.”

Gina Kuperberg, Dennett Stibel Professor of Cognitive Science: “We take it for granted that as we talk to one another, we are literally transferring thoughts from one mind to another. Language is what enables humans to communicate, and ultimately, language is a code. My research program is aimed at understanding this code. We're trying to figure out not only where, when, and how the brain uses language to communicate, but also the nature of the neural code itself.

“The whole idea of decoding brain activity is so important, not only medically for people in the future, but for understanding the nature of the human brain and thought. And we’re really on the cutting edge of being able to do that, particularly now with the BrainGate intellectual property.”