Studying these cells could lead to new treatments for diseases ranging from gastrointestinal disease to diabetes.
MIT has announced that the Sherman Fairchild Foundation has given the Institute a $5 million gift to establish a Center for Learning and Memory (CLM) and undertake a new initiative in a largely unexplored area of neuroscience-the biology of learning and memory.
"We are extremely grateful to the Sherman Fairchild Foundation for its continuing commitment to advanced and innovative scientific research through its generous support of MIT," said Dr. Charles M. Vest, president of MIT.
The Sherman Fairchild Foundation was established in 1955 by Sherman Fairchild, an inventor and the founder of Fairchild Camera and Instrument Corporation. Its $5 million grant is its third major gift to MIT. Earlier grants were designated toward the construction of the Sherman Fairchild Building, home of the Department of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science, and to establish the Program in Computational Approaches to the Brain Sciences. This latter grant was a pivotal event in MIT's expansion into computational neuroscience and provided the foundation for the present interdisciplinary Center for Biological and Computational Learning. Research in the new Center for Learning and Memory will complement that of the Center for Biology and Computational Learning and significantly expand MIT's efforts in neuroscience.
TONEGAWA TO DIRECT CLM
Selected to direct the CLM was Nobel laureate Susumu Tonegawa, whom MIT has appointed the first holder of the Amgen Professorship. The chair was established by the Institute to recognize its recently announced research collaboration with the global biotechnology company based in California. Professor Tonegawa, who holds joint academic appointments in the Department of Biology and the Department of Brain and Cognitive Sciences, is also a Howard Hughes Medical Institute investigator.
MIT Provost Mark S. Wrighton and MIT Dean of Science Robert J. Birgeneau jointly announced the establishment of the new center and the selection of Professor Tonegawa as its director.
Professor Tonegawa, who won the 1987 Nobel Prize in medicine or physiology for work that revolutionized the understanding of the human immune system, has focused his research in recent years on neurobiology. Two years ago, his research group was among three teams which jointly reported discovering a specific link between a particular gene and a learning deficit in mice. The work provided the first evidence for a mechanism linking molecular change to learning capability.
"MIT has given high priority to the neurosciences," Professor Wrighton said, "because we believe that an effort in basic science now will yield major progress in understanding the biological origins of complex brain functions. An understanding of how information is processed and stored in the brain could yield major benefits in terms of human health and welfare for conditions ranging from learning disabilities to Alzheimer's disease. Such understanding would provide unparalleled insights into the nature of the human mind."
Dean Birgeneau said the new CLM "will build on the capabilities that MIT has developed in the study of the neuron [the basic operating cell of the brain and nervous system] and its functions.
"This will be a highly interdisciplinary center involving students and faculty from the Department of Biology and the Department of Brain and Cognitive Sciences. And because neurobiology increasingly demands interaction with experts from outside the biological sciences, computer scientists, mathematicians, chemists and physicists will be involved as well.
SHARP, BIZZI SALUTED
"A special salute must be accorded Nobel laureate Phillip A. Sharp, the Salvador E. Luria Professor of Biology and head of the Department of Biology, and Emilio Bizzi, MD, the Eugene McDermott Professor in the Brain Sciences and Human Behavior, who is head of the Department of Brain and Cognitive Sciences. They jointly conceived the approach to learning and memory that this new program embodies," Dean Birgeneau said.
"I believe that MIT's School of Science is uniquely positioned to make fundamental contributions to our understanding of the brain from the level of single synapses to the macroscopic circuitry. In particular, we have significant strength in virtually all aspects of science which seem central to the solution of this great unsolved problem," Dean Birgeneau added.
The Institute is planning renovations on approximately 10,000 square feet of space in Building E18 as a home for the new center.
Professor Tonegawa said that the center's research efforts at the outset will be in three broad areas.
The biology of learning in the cortex, where abundant evidence indicates that long-term memory is centered.
Parallels between developmental and learning-related brain changes.
The role of biologically active molecules in learning and memory.
"In some respects," Professor Tonegawa said, "neurobiology stands now at a point where biology as a whole stood four decades ago.
"Many scientists believe that neuroscience, the study of how our brain functions, is the most exciting branch of science in the rest of this century and beyond. Reflecting this sentiment, the United States Congress has designated the 90s as the decade of brain research."
THE LAST FRONTIER
"We hope that the new center will help integrate the research and educational programs in neuroscience at MIT," Professor Tonegawa continued. The center will focus on the study of neural plasticity, including the learning and memory mechanisms, one of the most intriguing properties of the complex nervous system. The center's scientists will attack those problems by using state-of-the-art technologies, including those in genetics, molecular and cellular biology, physiology, and behavioral analysis in collaboration among themselves and with others outside the center.
"It is true that understanding neurons and brain networks is a far more challenging task than describing the workings of genes. A gene's information is packaged in a linear structure-a DNA molecule-that lends itself to measurement and manipulation, while in the brain even tiny bits of information appear to be stored and processed over complex networks.
"With the tools now available for studying the brain, however, there are grounds for optimism about future progress. And beyond the many health and other types of benefits likely to flow from an understanding of functions such as learning and memory, there is also an exciting sense that the crossing of what has been called science's last frontier-explaining the nature of the human mind-is for the first time a realistic prospect," Professor Tonegawa concluded.
A version of this article appeared in the May 18, 1994 issue of MIT Tech Talk (Volume 38, Number 33).