In his own words: BCS graduate student Rishi Rajalingham studies visual perception

May 23, 2016

In his own words: BCS graduate student Rishi Rajalingham studies visual perception

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Rishi Rajalingham

Rajalingham manipulates a linear array injectrode. The probe has multiple electrode contacts along its shaft for recording the activity of multiple neurons simultaneously, as well as a fluid capillary in the shaft for injecting pharmacological agents to perterb neuronal activity.

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Neuroscience is something that really wasn’t on my radar as a child.  My dad is a mechanical engineer who encouraged me in my love of math - I thought I was going to be an astrophysicist. And while I love music and writing and considered both of those options, for practical reasons, I became an engineer. I knew I wanted to go to graduate school and was debating what direction to choose l when I took a graduate level neuroprosthetics class. The professor in that class introduced me to neuroscience and became a mentor that I still value today.

Neuroprosthetics proved to be an incredibly engaging field.  It’s the meeting place between science and engineering, and is one of the ways we can process our understanding of the brain and use it for real applications. A great example is the cochlear implant, which, after implantation, becomes an interface for those who can’t hear, allowing them to process sound for the first time. We might also be able to take our understanding of motor control and even higher level things, like the desire or intent to move and use that information to move artificial limbs. 

The idea of basic science translating to applications like these is very important to me.  I enjoy research and science for the sake of itself, but keeping potential applications in mind as I go about my day drives me.

My current research asks whether we can stimulate the brain and change someone’s visual perception, and if so, where, and what are the codes, the spatial patterns, and the temporal patterns?  We had an experiment recently that showed if you inhibit certain parts of the brain, the test subject was completely unable to distinguish genders. Scientifically it was just a fantastic moment, showing a causal effect between the brain tissue we inhibited and behavior.  It was by far one of the best days I have ever had in the lab and reaffirmed my love for science and the scientific process. What if, through basic research experiments like these, it was possible to build a foundation that could eventually enable the creation of a device like the cochlear implant for people who are blind?

One of the best things about MIT is the cutting edge level of research we are exposed to. It’s very exciting to be involved with such rigorous, cutting edge science. People are developing new tools right here in the building that I am able to use almost immediately in my experiments.  Every day, you know that something is happening here that is not happening anywhere else. It’s incredibly invigorating, and something that I hope I contribute to in my own way.