Michael M. Halassa, M.D., Ph.D.


Michael M. Halassa, M.D., Ph.D.
Assistant Professor
Brain and Cognitive Sciences
Massachusetts Institute of Technology
43 Vassar St.
City, State, ZIP
Cambridge, MA 02139
(617) 253-5757
[email protected]
Research field
Award year
Pew distinction
Innovation Fund investigator


My lab combines parametric behavioral tasks with physiological, genetic, and optical manipulations to understand core circuit mechanisms and computational principles of cognitive function. We focus on thalamocortical interactions that implement attention, executive control, and decision-making. Using the mouse as a model system for studying goal-directed attention, we have identified a precise nonrelay function for the thalamus. We are currently extending this work by taking a comparative approach, examining commonalities and differences of thalamocortical function across mice and tree shrews. In collaboration, we are leveraging our basic research program to applications relevant for human health on one end and to artificial intelligence research on another. The overarching goal is to establish a computational theory for the cognitive thalamus. We hope that this knowledge would provide practical applications in two separate domains: decision-making abnormalities in psychiatric disorders and flexible reasoning in artificial intelligence.

As an Innovation Fund investigator, Michael Halassa, M.D., Ph.D., is teaming up with Mikhail Shapiro, Ph.D., to explore the connection of two areas of the brain in modulating decision-making in patients with schizophrenia. Recent neuroimaging in humans has shown that the mediodorsal thalamus is a critical area for tracking uncertainty in decision-making. Furthermore, the connection between this particular region and the prefrontal cortex is often perturbed in patients with schizophrenia. The pair will combine expertise from Shapiro’s work in biomolecular imaging and Halassa’s research in neural circuit mechanisms to investigate whether neurostimulation of the mediodorsal thalamus can enhance the activity of the prefrontal cortex. They will use tree shrews as a model organism for their studies to examine the two regions of the brain using a noninvasive technology developed by the Shapiro lab and observe for behavioral effects from the manipulation. This work has the potential to enhance our current understanding of brain circuits in patients suffering from schizophrenia and inform the development of new approaches to managing schizophrenic symptoms related to delusional thinking.

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