Department Welcomes New Assistant Professor

  • Feature Story

Department Welcomes New Assistant Professor

by 

Sara Cody
Assistant Professor Michael Halassa studies the mechanisms of cognitive function. Photo credit: Vilcek Foundation.

For Michael Halassa, who joined the BCS faculty as an assistant professor in January 2018, returning to MIT is a homecoming. And he is ready to hit the ground running.

“As a graduate student at the University of Pennsylvania, I studied molecular and cellular neuroscience, where the focus was not so much on behavior but on figuring out how the cells themselves worked. From there, I joined BCS in Matt Wilson’s lab as a postdoctoral fellow to study systems neuroscience,” says Halassa. “I saw it as the intermediate level of organization between cellular and cognitive neuroscience, so I wanted to tackle that area by studying neural circuits in a behavioral context.”

In addition to a strong background in molecular, cellular and systems neuroscience, Halassa brings another unique asset to the table: he is a practicing psychiatrist.

“I grew up in Jordan, and after high school I decided to follow in my parents’ footsteps and attend medical school, but I quickly realized that pursuing a purely clinical career was not the right path for me because I wanted to understand how things worked rather than apply existing models of how they worked,” says Halassa. “But in medical school, I developed an interest in the brain, which led me to study neuroscience in graduate school and ultimately to my interest in behavior.”

As a postdoctoral fellow in BCS, Halassa also underwent psychiatry residency at Massachusetts General Hospital. According to Halassa, working with patients suffering from schizophrenia and other brain disorders provides him with a unique perspective that helps inform his research approach.

“In a disease like schizophrenia, we can attribute the symptoms, like an inability to distinguish bizarre thoughts from sound ones, to a loss of cognitive control,” says Halassa. “It’s humbling to see what I study in the lab out in the real world and witness how it affects real people. This drives me to continue to study the underlying brain mechanisms of cognitive control so we might develop ways to treat these disorders.”

After completing his postdoctoral fellowship at MIT, Halassa established his research laboratory at New York University, where he focused on developing cognitive models in the mouse to enable studying the mechanisms of processes like attention, executive function and working memory.

“I saw there was a big opportunity to capitalize on the technological breakthroughs in molecular neuroscience and apply the tools to study the mechanisms of cognitive function,” says Halassa. “In my lab we were able to develop a few complex cognitive behaviors for mice, which allowed us to observe how cognitive neural activity changed with a respect to behavior and to manipulate aspects of neural circuits to understand the actual causal structure in the brain that supports a set of basic cognitive operations”.

Halassa became particularly interested in the thalamus, an area of the brain traditionally thought to play a role in the passive relay of information, received either from sensory information or the cortex itself, to other cortical regions of the brain.

“We’ve found the thalamus plays much more interesting roles in cognition than previously thought because it allows the cortex to maintain and switch persistent activity associated with thoughts and integrating decisions over time, which defines our mental life,” says Halassa. “To sum it up, my lab focuses on the thalamus to understand how it interacts with the cortex and how that interaction gives rise to basic cognitive operations”.

At MIT, Halassa will continue to follow this research path while taking it in exciting new directions. In the short term, he plans on building his research team, which already features a robust group of research scientists, technicians and postdoctoral fellows who have joined him from NYU. In the long term, he will expand the area of neural modeling in his group which will enable his team to develop descriptions of thalamo-cortical functions in terms of neural “hardware” and “software”.

“I’m really excited to join the faculty and to be here. It’s a huge opportunity for me to share my experience and to learn from the other amazing faculty at BCS,” says Halassa. “The fact that I will contribute to the department that had such a formative impact on my career is a huge privilege.”