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The Innovators In Science Award Honorees Are Breaking New Ground In Neuroscience: Kay Tye

Dr. Kay Tye has made discoveries between neural networks and social interaction.

Albert Einstein reportedly once said, “Not everything that can be counted counts, and not everything that counts can be counted.” Though the 2017 honorees of the Innovators in Science Award have plenty of countable achievements, their stories reveal a common thread — creative approaches to their work and the development of disruptive tools that transformed scientific understanding in their discipline.

Bridging Psychology and Neuroscience

During her undergraduate years at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Kay Tye, PhD, an Early-Career Scientist Finalist, enjoyed taking psychology classes alongside her load of neuroscience coursework. But the contrast revealed each field’s shortcomings: Psychology felt unsatisfying, she says, because it lacked a mechanism to trace thought and emotion back to neural mechanisms. And neuroscience focused on sensory or motor systems without hinting at how these systems give way to thought and emotion.

Eventually, she devised a plan to bridge the fields. She began using optogenetics to tease apart the underpinnings of motivation and reward. “The dream has always been to completely understand on every level how complex social and emotional representations exist in the brain,” says Tye, Assistant Professor at MIT’s Picower Institute for Learning and Memory. Using this approach, Tye has made startling discoveries about the neural networks involved in social interaction, including the finding that loneliness drives social interaction.

Going forward, she aims to explore how social representations are parsed in the brain. This research program, she says, could someday lead to targeted therapeutics for psychiatric conditions that have minimal side effects.

“If we understand the cells and circuits and synapses that give rise to different emotional states,” she says, “then we can understand when there are perturbations and how to fix them.”

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Academy Staff
This article was written by a member of the Academy staff.