"At that point, neuroscientists get very excited because you have the ability to hear the electrical activity of that single cell," Forest said. "Despite all the firing of millions of neurons in the neighborhood, once I form that seal, I can hear that one with exquisite sensitivity and precision."
There are only about a dozen of the automated patch-clamping robots in the world, but it's not Boyden and Forest's intention to keep them a secret. On the contrary, they've posted the complete plans for the robot on the Internet so anyone can download them and create their own.
"I would argue, if you really understand how the mind computes your thoughts and emotions -- things like sharing credit, teaching and doing good for humanity become natural," Boyden said.
The researchers are also working on a scaled-down version that would cost less and be more portable. They have spun off an Atlanta-based start-up company called Neuromatic Devices to sell the finished products, but neither holds equity in it.
Optogenetics can be combined with automatic patch clamping to identify neurons of interest and then measure their activity. The robot could also perform single-cell surgery.
Forest's group has already used the robot idea to simultaneously record intracellular activity from more neurons than anyone else -- only three, surprisingly -- in a live mouse. The Brain Activity Map's ambitions involve interceullar recordings thousands to millions of neurons at once.
When compared that way, the current neural recording technology is like a steam engine, while we need a rocket ship, Forest said.
"We've got a lot of work to do, and our hope is that this just plants some initial seeds towards that endeavor," he said.
One of the people e-mailing Boyden after The New York Times story was George Church, who has published research with him in the past. Church was one of the leading figures of the Human Genome Project, and a current backer of the Brain Activity Map.
Optogenetics, combined with high-density optical fiber arrays, could be a promising tool in the quest to map the brain, Church said. In other words, researchers can then use optic fibers to manipulate multiple neurons that activate in response to light. High-density optical fiber arrays would offer more, and thinner, probes for neuronal exploration than bulky electrodes.
Boyden and colleagues are also working on three-dimensional brain interfaces, manufactured in a way similar to computer chips. Rather than having computer circuitry on them, they have dense electrodes that would allow research to pick up on the activity of many neurons at once.
The data from recording so many neurons will require a huge amount of computer storage; for recording the entire brain at once, it would be mind-boggling.
"Most of neuroscience has gone on with people studying one part of the brain at a time," said Georgia Tech's Stanley. "Here's somebody's lab over here that studies this part of the brain, there's somebody's over there that studies that part of the brain. Putting it all together is really a tough problem."
Controlling his own brain
People don't like to talk about enhancing the brain, Boyden said; it makes people uneasy to think about designing or engineering a way to sharpen our minds. Yet plenty of people take pharmaceuticals -- sometimes without a prescription -- to help themselves focus or be less anxious, and caffeine and alcohol have been around for centuries.
"I think the most important thing is for humanity to openly discuss this topic," he said. "If we can discuss it, and we also can talk about side effects, should we maybe try to design more optimized versions of things?"
Enhancing his own brain was something Boyden thought about long before he became a neuroscientist.
At 18, he was taking six courses per term, all graduate-level. Feeling overloaded, and also curious about what it would be like to take a drug that focuses the mind, he went to the campus psychiatrist and got a prescription for Ritalin. He doesn't remember anyone telling him to just take fewer classes.
The drug did make him focus, a lot. He took one pill when he woke up and another just before plasma physics class, "so I don't remember much from that term except for plasma physics," he said.
But after a couple of months he stopped taking the Ritalin. He's not clear on whether the drug altered him permanently, or whether he just learned to focus better, skills for "how to simulate some of those processes in my mind."
Academically, Boyden never slowed down. On his 25-page resume, he lists perfect, or more-than-perfect, GPAs throughout high school, college and graduate school. At Stanford, he met his now-wife, neuroscientist Xue Han. They have published research together and are raising two young children. His "spare time" goes to his family.
In the last six years, he's found something new to calm himself and concentrate: meditation.
He meditates every day when he wakes up, incorporating a structure called "internal family systems," which involves looking at all the drives, thoughts and desires in your mind.
"By showing compassion for them, you can get them to become less polarized and work with them and negotiate between them and it's very powerful," Boyden said.