Robert Desimone is the Director of the McGovern Institute for Brain Research and the Doris and Don Berkey Professor of Neuroscience at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. He is a leading expert in mapping how the brain organizes and prioritizes sensory information to inform our decision-making processes. As a self-described “reductionist” he believes that one day, with enough computing power, it will be possible to predict whether any two people will fall in love, and that Artificial Intelligences will become fully conscious.
Robert Desimone is the director of the McGovern Institute for Brain Research and the Doris and Don Berkey Professor of Neuroscience at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Desimone received his BA from Macalester College in 1974 and his Ph.D. from Princeton University in 1979. He is married with two children.
The McGovern Institute was founded at MIT by Patrick Joseph McGovern and Lore Harp McGovern with a dual mission of conducting basic research on the mind and brain and applying that knowledge to help the many people suffering from brain disorders. Prior to joining the McGovern Institute in 2004, Robert Desimone was the director of intramural research at the National Institute of Mental Health, the largest mental health research center in the world. He is a member of the US National Academy of Sciences and the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, a Fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science. He is recognized for his research on the brain mechanisms that underlie visual perception, attention, and executive control. At the McGovern Institute, he is promoting the development of systems neuroscience, novel neuroscience technologies, and the translation of basic research findings into new treatments that improve human health, including new approaches to brain disorders such as autism and schizophrenia.
Professor Desimone served as the Secretary of the Society for Neuroscience from 2016 through 2019. His awards include the Society for Neuroscience Ralph W. Gerard Prize in Neuroscience given to “outstanding scientists who have made significant contributions to neuroscience throughout their careers,” 2021; the Kavli Distinguished Career Award of the Cognitive Neuroscience Society, 2020; the Patricia Goldman Rakic Prize of the Brain and Behavior Research Foundation, 2020; the Helmholtz Prize of the International Neural Network Society, 2009, and the Golden Brain Award of the Minerva Foundation, 1994.
From 2014-2018, Desimone was featured as an international guest judge on The Brain, a televised competition of unique mental skills in China, where it is one of the most popular TV series.
At the McGovern Institute, Desimone describes his research as follows:
Our brains are constantly bombarded with sensory information. The ability to distinguish relevant information from irrelevant distractions is a critical skill, one that is impaired in many brain disorders. By studying the visual system of humans and animals, Robert Desimone has shown that when we attend to something specific, neurons in certain brain regions fire in unison—like a chorus rising above the noise—allowing the relevant information to be ‘heard’ more efficiently by other regions of the brain.
Desimone is interested in how the brain deals with the challenge of information overload. Just as our world buzzes with distractions, the neurons in our brain are constantly bombarded with messages. Some messages contain relevant information, but many do not. By studying the visual system of humans and animals, Desimone has shown that relevant information is selectively amplified in certain brain regions, while irrelevant information is suppressed.
Desimone’s work also suggests that the prefrontal cortex—a brain region known to be involved in planning and executive control of behavior—most likely serves as the conductor of this neural chorus. The prefrontal cortex provides a top-down signal that coordinates rhythmic activity across multiple brain regions. Desimone suspects this pattern of rhythmic activity is not just specific to attention, but could also represent a more general mechanism for communication between different parts of the brain.
Sometimes, distraction can be a good thing—a train barreling towards us should grab our attention regardless of what else we’re doing. But these kinds of ‘bottom-up’ distractions must be balanced against the need to stay on message. If this balance is disrupted, many aspects of life may be impaired as a result. Desimone believes that altered neural synchrony may underlie many brain disorders that disrupt attention – such as attention deficit disorder, Parkinson’s disease, and schizophrenia – and that searching for ways to enhance synchrony may be a useful strategy for developing new treatments for these conditions.”