Even after decades immersed in neuroscience, Robert Desimone ’74 can still be surprised by the marvels— and mysteries—of the human brain.

Take last year, when Desimone served as a guest judge on the popular Chinese television competition Super Brain, which pits contestants with unusual cognitive talents against each other to solve challenges in front of an awed studio audience. He watched a contestant divide an 18-digit number by an 11-digit number—in 7.5 seconds. “It would have taken me longer to use a calculator to solve the problem,” he says.

Desimone, a neuroscientist who directs Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s McGovern Institute for Brain Research, was recruited to the show to assure audiences that the contestants’ exceptional skills were real. One contestant, for example, could memorize three walnut halves and then find the matching halves on a wall with more than 100 walnuts; another could study two walls made of 2,500 Rubik’s cubes, each displaying one of its six faces, and identify the single difference between the two walls. Sometimes the victor could be decided numerically. “But in some cases you’re comparing apples and oranges,” he says, “and that’s when I would help determine a winner.”

Desimone doesn’t doubt that the show’s intellectual feats are real, but he can’t always explain how they happen. After they saw the calculation expert in action, Desimone and a fellow judge asked the contestant how he did it. The neuroscientists knew that most calculation experts learn by training initially with an abacus. Over time, they learned to mentally manipulate the abacus in their heads, without the physical beads, but this kind of mental gymnastics could take up to 100 steps. Over time, the contestant told them, he stopped using the mental abacus but he could not explain how he reached an answer: the correct digits would simply come to him as he started writing down the answer.

Desimone’s best guess for what’s happening? “Instead of using the parts of the brain usually associated with math, he could be exploiting the parts of the brain that calculate how to precisely move all your muscles to grasp an object with your fingers or hit a baseball, taking feedback from the muscles into account—these muscle calculations are also very complex but they are done quickly, in parallel, and without conscious awareness,” he says. “Practicing on the abacus may have even helped make that transition, because he’s using his arms and fingers to write the answer.”

Desimone’s work on Super Brain is a lighthearted application of his neuroscience training. His work at the McGovern Institute has more serious outcomes: the researchers he supports are investigating and developing treatments for brain disorders including addiction, Alzheimer’s disease, depression, and schizophrenia. The revolutionary “CRISPR” method for editing the genome in mammalian cells was developed by one of their researchers, for example, and some medical treatments using CRISPR-related methods are already in clinical trials. The institute’s mission (and what drives Desimone’s own approach) prioritizes building multidisciplinary teams that bridge what he says is a huge gap in science in the journey from identifying a gene mutation to understanding how it alters behavior—and then translating those findings into what happens in the clinic.

For more than two decades, Desimone has studied how the brain pays attention. In fact, he conducted some of the earliest experiments on how we process distractions. “I’ve learned that our ability to filter out distractions using our attention systems is far inferior to simply physically removing distractions,” he says. “Turn off the music, turn off the TV, focus on the task at hand, and you’ll perform much better.”

He spends less time in the lab now, but Desimone has been focused on research since his years at Macalester, which he learned about through the college’s National Merit Scholarship program. “My family was too poor to send me to visit schools, so I chose Macalester based on the literature I got in the mail,” he says. “And then I got on a plane for the first time, by myself, and flew to St. Paul.”

Desimone started out as an aspiring psychotherapist but quickly realized he was torn between therapy and research. After graduating early to save money, he worked in a halfway house. There, a supervisor’s advice gave him clarity: “Even though I was interested in helping people with mental illness, I was much better in the lab.”

As a PhD student at Princeton, he joined neuroscientist Charles Gross’s lab, where he and his lab mates discovered the first serious evidence for neurons in the cortex specialized for identifying faces. “Nowadays everyone accepts this is how it works, but back then, the large majority of the field simply didn’t believe the results,” he says. “That was one of the most important contributions I’ve made in science. At the time, it was a totally radical idea.”

So radical, in fact, that Desimone heeded advice from a senior scientist reviewing the lab’s work to give up that line of inquiry. In his next role in a neuropsychology lab at the National Institute of Mental Health, the world’s largest mental health research center, he delved into mapping the cortex but avoided areas like face recognition. Initially Desimone resented the advice, but in hindsight, it saved him a lot of grief. Years later, fMRI brain imaging would push the field forward, showing researchers exactly where to look in the brain for the “face neurons.” Without that technology, he would’ve been trying to find a needle in a haystack.

Desimone went on to lead the National Institute of Mental Health’s intramural research program—focused on facilitating new treatments for psychiatric disorders—during what he describes as a golden era of funding. “We weren’t limited by money per se; we were limited by great ideas,” he says. Desimone began work to revitalize the clinical program by bringing in new researchers with bolder projects. Eventually, he became frustrated by the paucity of ideas for new clinical treatments, so he decided to take a step back into basic research again, which might lead to better ideas for the clinic. When he learned that the McGovern Institute shared this philosophy, he found that attractive and came on board in 2004.

Because McGovern has three satellite locations at Chinese universities, Desimone began to connect with research in China, which built his reputation in the Chinese neuroscience community. Five years ago, a Chinese neuroscientist extended a last-minute invitation to join Super Brain—then in its first season—as a judge. Though the show proved immediately popular, viewers had just as quickly grown suspicious of its contestants’ exceptional skills. As the show approached its first international competition episodes at the first season’s conclusion, producers were scrambling to find an international neuroscientist to certify the feats. Desimone traveled to Nanjing, where the show is produced, arriving minutes before filming began. He’s been part of Super Brain ever since.

His role on the show changed last year when it shifted formats. Instead of featuring contestants with narrow expertise, as they had in the show’s first four years, producers offered an online qualification exam and selected contestants who each brought a range of abilities. More than 100,000 Chinese people took the  test to be on the show, and the new format yielded even higher ratings. Recruiting for the opposing international team—part of Desimone’s new duties—wasn’t quite so easy: he contacted friends at various universities to find graduate students who weren’t as restricted by a daily class schedule as undergrads. Once his team was assembled, he served as a team leader, advising the contestants. He filmed several more episodes this spring.

At this stage in his career, he’s fascinated by the range of neurological wonders he sees, from the cognitive feats in a Nanjing television studio to the discoveries emerging from labs around the world. Desimone has never described himself as naturally optimistic—he counts himself firmly in the glass-half-empty camp. But that’s changing, at least regarding his field’s future. “I’ve been frustrated for so many years by the pace of progress, at least the pace toward helping people with mental disorders,” Desimone says. “But I’ve become optimistic. There have been fantastic discoveries over the past few years, and new tools are coming online at an astonishing pace. Never in my career has there been this pace of discovery. There’s no question in my mind that we are on track to major improvements in how we treat brain disorders.”

BY REBECCA DEJARLAIS ORTIZ ’06

April 24 2019

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