MIT Faculty Newsletter  
Vol. XVI No. 5
April / May 2004
FPC Statement on
Representation of Minorities
Leadership, Management,
and Education at MIT
Update on Women Faculty in the
Sloan School of Management
Update on Women Faculty in the
School of Architecture and Planning
The MIT/WHOI Joint Program in Oceanography and Applied Ocean Science and Engineering
The Picower Center for
Learning and Memory
MIT's Not-So-Green New Buildings
Mauled Ilusionist Goes Home
Haystack Observatory
The Changing Environment of Scholarly Communication: Challenges and Opportunities for Faculty
Security on the MIT Campus
Beyond the Anecdotes
My Experience with the
Artist-in-Residence Program
Faculty Satisfaction
Printable Version

Research at MIT

The Picower Center for Learning and Memory

Susumu Tonegawa

Neuroscience today is on the cusp of a great adventure. The tools of the field have advanced rapidly in the past few years, and the big research questions have been honed to a point where we are ready to take full advantage of the state of the art. The Picower Center for Learning and Memory is seizing the promise of this moment by focusing a wide range of scientific talents on a single goal: unraveling the mechanisms that drive the quintessentially human capacity to remember and learn.

Only recently have the techniques and technologies of brain research reached a point where it is possible to explore the brain at every level of its complexity - from its molecules to the cognitive system as a whole. Picower Center researchers run the gamut from molecular biology to genetics to physiology to systems biology behavioral studies, and thus are uniquely equipped to build the integrative knowledge needed to build a coherent understanding of the human mind.

The mission of the Picower Center is to understand the mechanisms that allow the brain to learn, remember and think.

Established in 1994, the center explores learning, memory, and cognition, as well as development in the growing brain, by using a multidisciplinary approach that addresses every level of brain function from molecules to synapses, neural circuits and behavior.

The Center now includes 13 faculty members and research groups, comprising a total staff of 200. Just a few examples of the latest discoveries from Picower Center labs include the following:

    • Focusing on the prefrontal cortex, Earl Miller's laboratory has made several breakthroughs in understanding how we are able to categorize everything we encounter in daily life - how our brains effortlessly assign new things to existing categories almost every minute of every day. The Miller lab showed for the first time how learned concepts such as "cat" and "dog" are stored in individual neurons.
  • Building on his early training as an electrical engineer, Matt Wilson developed a new technique that allows researchers for the first time to measure the responses and interactions of large groups of individual neurons. Focusing on specific cells in the hippocampus, Wilson's lab used this technique to analyze the dreams of rats. They found that as an animal learns a route in a maze, for instance, a set of cells in the hippocampus are activated in a certain order, and when the animal is asleep, the cells fire in exactly the same order. In addition to showing that animals dream about their waking experiences, as we do, this work supports the idea that dreams help solidify memories by processing them for long-term storage.
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  • Elly Nedivi uses molecular biology techniques to unravel which of the brain's genes are involved in making memories. From the full roster of genes expressed in the brain, Nedivi's lab has isolated 315 that probably play a role in memory. Nedivi is convinced that memory-making must take advantage of a complex genetic ensemble. Her lab has already isolated a gene that codes for a protein with two distinct functions: promoting neuronal growth and helping the cell survive. This gene may play a role in early development as well as forming memories in later life. Establishing this fundamental understanding may help design highly targeted drugs of the future for treating disorders such as Alzheimer's, in which aggregations of abnormal proteins kill off healthy brain cells.
  • My own work has revealed that the loss of a single type of protein in a tiny subsection of the hippocampus deals a disastrous blow to the ability to learn and remember. Using a technique developed by my lab, we created mouse strains in which a specific gene is knocked out in a particular type of neuron in one part of the brain. Previous technologies only allowed genes to be knocked out throughout the entire organism, allowing much less precise investigation. By observing the physiological and behavioral deficits of these mice, the lab is learning a great deal about the fundamental mechanisms that allow the brain to store and retrieve memories. We discovered, among other things, that a single gene in the hippocampus is critical to both storing and retrieving memories.

All these studies and more by Picower's talented faculty and staff are leading to a comprehensive understanding of fundamental questions about the mechanisms of memory and the basis for learning. Not only will they create new knowledge of how the brain does its amazing job, they also will lead to information that will help cure a range of crippling brain diseases from Alzheimer's to schizophrenia.

The work of the Picower Center will get a further boost in 2005, when it will gain a highly functional and attractive new building of its own. The facility, located on Vassar Street and Main Street on the northeast corner of the MIT campus, will be the Picower Center's first permanent home. It will include 125,000 square feet of laboratories, teaching facilities, a conference center, research and administrative offices, clinical space, and student lounges. Better and larger communal facilities such as those for microscopy and magnetic resonance imaging will permit scientists to pursue new types of projects. Gathering spaces will allow people and ideas to intersect in new ways, fostering cross-disciplinary collaborations inside and outside the Institute.

Supplementing long-term support from the RIKEN Brain Science Institute, a visionary gift in 2002 from Jeffry and Barbara Picower of the Picower Foundation renamed the center, expanded its research base, and contributed to the new building. We at MIT – as well as the world at large – are the beneficiaries of the Picowers' view of the future in which neuroscience helps alleviate crippling diseases and enhances strategies for education. The Picower Center has already made significant contributions along these fronts, and we are poised to achieve much more.

For more information on the Picower Center, please visit our Web site:

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