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Now Available: Innovators Under 35 2013 See The 2013 List »

Doris Tsao, 31

Shedding light on how our brains recognize faces

University of Bremen (Germany)

Glance at a newsmagazine and you probably recognize the face on the cover right away--Al Gore looking serious in profile, or perhaps a smirking Dick Cheney. But in that instant, your brain performs a lot of complex computations: identifying the object as a face (regardless of size or viewing angle), interpreting its expression, and accessing memory to determine whether it's familiar.

Little is known about how the brain does all that, but Doris Tsao aims to unravel the process by combining two of the most important tools in neuroscience: brain imaging and electrical recordings from single neurons.

Last year, Tsao used functional magnetic resonance imaging, a technology that ­indirectly measures brain activity, to identify areas of the monkey brain that are active only when the animals look at faces. She then used a detailed MRI picture to guide an electrode to several of those spots. ­Using the electrode to record activity from individual neurons, she found that different cells respond to different facial characteristics--say, the shape of the face or the size of the eyes. This exquisite level of detail would have been impossible with imaging alone.

Tsao's work yields important clues to how neural activity leads to conscious visual perception, says Christof Koch, a neuroscientist at Caltech. "It's a step toward answering the age-old question 'What is the relation between the mind and the brain?'"

--Emily Singer

2007 TR35 Winners

J. Christopher Anderson

Creating tumor-killing bacteria

Kristala Jones Prather

Reverse-engineering biology

Ali Khademhosseini

Living Legos

Christopher Loose

Beating up bacteria

Neil Renninger

Hacking microbes for energy

Shetal Shah

Cushioning preemies

Abraham Stroock

Microfluidic biomaterials

Doris Tsao

Shedding light on how our brains recognize faces

Lili Yang

Engineering immunity

Mehmet Yanik

Stopping light on microchips

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