Department Welcomes New Associate Professor

  • Feature Story

Department Welcomes New Associate Professor

by 

Sara Cody
Ila Fiete combines theoretical and computational approaches to understand the neural codes that underlie behavior and cognition

According to Ila Fiete, who joined the BCS faculty as an associate professor in the fall of 2018, it’s an exciting time for brain research. The past two decades have seen rapid expansion in our capability to collect and analyze real-time activity in large numbers of neurons as animals perform tasks and exhibit interesting behavior. Computational approaches to extract understanding from these data are necessary for learning how brain and mind function.

“I study questions of mechanism and coding in the brain: how circuits in the brain compute, and and why they represent information the way they do. It’s exciting to see a renewed interest in theory overall. Advances in experimentation have opened a bigger peephole into the landscape of brain with new opportunities for insight,” says Fiete. “With the wealth of data, we can more quickly validate or cast away old ideas, which in turn will free us to dream up new, bold ideas that will take us further than we ever thought possible.” 

Fiete’s trajectory into neuroscience was serendipitous. As an undergraduate at the University of Michigan, she majored in physics, mathematics and philosophy. It wasn’t until she was halfway through her graduate work in physics at Harvard University that she took a biophysics course at MIT, led by former BCS faculty member Sebastian Seung that focused on computational systems biology. The intersection of her interests came together to illuminate an exciting new path forward, applying her physicist’s mindset to study the brain.

“Physics appealed to me because I saw it as a way of thinking and approaching problems,” says Fiete. “As a physicist, the types of questions I ask are how different time scales interact in neural processing, or how unavoidable fundamental processes, like fluctuations and noise, degrade memory and information processing.”

Fiete’s training helped inform her approach to research, where she combines theory with computation and theory-driven data analysis to explore longstanding questions about systems and cognitive neuroscience.   Her research program focuses primarily on understanding how neural circuits support codes that underlie behavior.

“I’m very interested in how noise interacts with processing in neural systems, both positively and negatively, and in error control, or how the brain corrects the effects of noise” says Fiete. “For example, noise in memory systems is a disadvantage because it can corrupt memories that are being stored, so the brain has sophisticated strategies to fight against noise buildup to  preserve memories. But in learning, motor control, and maybe even creativity, noise can be helpful because it helps with exploration and learning new strategies for navigating the world.”

Fiete is also interested in understanding spatial navigation, which she became interested in with the discovery of grid cells, neurons that track our movement through the world and enable us to understand our environment. According to Fiete, these neural substrates are a “theorist’s dream come true” because of their striking geometric fields with periodic response patterns as a function of space, and perplexing coding properties.

“Because animals must synthesize a lot of different types of sensory data and resolve large amounts of ambiguity to navigate successfully through the world, and at the same time the problems of navigation can be defined crisply in computational terms, spatial navigation is a beautifully contained example of complex cognitive computation in the brain, open to multiple levels of analysis,” says Fiete. “There are environmental landmarks whose spatial relationships you can learn and then recall from your memory, your own body generates motion cues from  sensory perception modalities like vision and audition, and you likely use probabilistic reasoning to help make inferences as you navigate through a noisy, ambiguous, changing world.”

Understanding how navigation works in the brain could have a broad impact across many fields, such as the development of robust search-and-rescue robots that can successfully navigate new or unpredictable environments, much like human and many animals can.

Coming to MIT, Fiete is excited by the collaborative possibilities of working with faculty who have expertise spanning both neuroscience and cognitive sciences. She hopes to focus her research program on mechanistic cognitive modeling, to understand abstract cognitive function at the circuit level, while continuing to pursue her interests in memory and learning.

“An intrinsic piece of who we are as human beings is the drive to try to understand ourselves better, and the brain gives us the ultimate way to rise to that challenge,” says Fiete. “As the most complex computing device that we know of, trying to understand how it works is an incredible intellectual pursuit.”