The next great scientific frontier will be the exploration of the brain and the mind. For the first time in history, advances in biology, computer science, artificial intelligence and the cognitive sciences have given us the baseline understanding and tools needed to define in detail how the brain works. Likewise, we can now envision new approaches to the neurodegenerative diseases such as Alzheimer's and Parkinson's disease, and to more complex disorders like schizophrenia, major depression and autism.
MIT is poised to become a world leader in pursuing the opportunities created by such progress. In 1994, the Institute created the Center for Learning and Memory with an initial grant from the Sherman Fairchild Foundation. Thanks to subsequent support from the RIKEN Brain Science Institute and the National Institute of Mental Health, the Center has grown to nine full-time faculty. With the aid of an extraordinary grant from the Picower Foundation, MIT now plans a state-of-the-art building to house the Center. It will allow for an expansion to thirteen faculty, along with added research and support staff as well as more graduate and undergraduate students.
The Picower Center's mission is to elucidate the nature of learning and memory. Why did we choose this area for study? Learning and memory are central to human behavior. Without them we would not be able to survive, much less carry out the activities that underlie the rich variety of human culture. The growing prevalence of Alzheimer's disease has given us an insight into the impact of large-scale memory loss. Those seriously afflicted not only lose their memories, they often lose any sense of themselves as individuals. But learning and memory are vital to much more than our sense of self. For example, if we did not have stored in memory information about the shape and function of objects - a coffee cup, a hammer, a computer - we would have no way to employ them for the tasks they are designed to perform.
The brain, with 100 billion of the specialized information-processing cells called neurons, has several layers of complexity. One is the level of its molecules, including DNA; a second level is of individual neurons and of the connections among them (synapses); a third is that of circuits of connected neurons; and a fourth is that of anatomical subregions within the brain such as the hippocampus responsible for many types of memory. A yet higher level is that of the interactions between anatomical subregions. Each of the myriad of our mental activities is based on a unique set of events and processes occurring in the hierarchy of the multiple levels of complexity.
The Picower Center's mission is to identify these events and processes at each of their levels and their cause-consequence relationships as the basis for the mental activity known as learning and memory. Since the brain's development early in life depends on the interactions between the brain's genetic program and stimuli from the environment, we believe the mechanisms at work during development are similar to those involved in learning and memory. Therefore, some of the Center's faculty also study how a child's brain develops. In addition, of course, we will be concerned not only with how these brain functions operate normally but also how they go awry in disease.
Our strategy has been to assemble a group of talented investigators who share the Center's basic goals, and who have the intellectual skills and as needed, technological expertise, to advance the state of neuroscience. MIT's role has been to provide these creative, motivated individuals with world-class facilities and resources. We encourage synergistic interactions among scientists with different backgrounds - essential to any effort to comprehend a system as complex as the brain.
The effectiveness of this strategy is amply demonstrated by the success of the Center's relatively young faculty. A few examples of their accomplishments:
*Dr. Elly Nedivi's lab
has discovered genes that play pivotal roles in allowing infants' brains to
develop their visual capabilities in response to incoming light.
*Building on the fact that the human brain has a remarkable ability to categorize objects - as indicated by the fact that we know an apple differs from a red billiard ball even if they look almost exactly alike -- Dr. Earl Miller's laboratory has shown that selected neurons in the front-most part of the brain play a key role in giving us this ability.
*Morgan Sheng's laboratory has uncovered some of the most fundamental mechanisms by which brain cells make contact with each other to exchange information. They have identified a set of novel proteins that control the strength of connections between brain cells and therefore may play an important role in learning and memory.
*Dr. Susumu Tonegawa's laboratory invented a technology to target a "knockout" of a single mouse gene to a specific brain region and demonstrated that the function of a specific gene in a particular brain region is essential for memory acquisition while the same gene in another brain region plays a crucial role in memory recall.
* Dr. Wilson's laboratory showed that during rapid eye movement sleep - the sleep state associated with dreaming in humans - rats replayed their daytime travels through a maze, suggesting both that animals have complex dreams, and that dreams help turn short-term memories into long-term ones.
Such research is not only
advancing our understanding of the mind and brain but also promises broader
impacts. For example, drug addiction appears to involve brain mechanisms similar
to those involved in learning and memory, meaning that our work is directly
relevant to this devastating societal problem. Our research will also shed
light on key issues affecting the proper development of infants' brains, including
learning to see or to speak. Such knowledge will help lay the groundwork for
learning disabilities in children, or in adults who have suffered brain injuries.
Finally, the Picower Center's studies, by shedding light on the sophisticated
but still poorly understood means by which the brain processes information,
will help set the stage for a new generation of dramatically enhanced computing
Picower Professor of
Biology and Neuroscience & Founding Director, Nobel Laureate in Physiology or Medicine (1987)