Studying these cells could lead to new treatments for diseases ranging from gastrointestinal disease to diabetes.
Software businessman and MIT alumnus Paul E. Newton has made a $1.25 million gift to MIT to create a professorship and research fund in neuroscience.
Mr. Newton (SB 1965 in physics, SM 1967 in management) has had a longtime interest in the brain. "It's only been in the last decade that people have understood enough about different brain functions to make it a really promising field, and MIT has an amazing track record of being able to direct its attention to emerging fields at the right time," he said.
Mr. Newton is the former chief executive of Boole and Babbage, a San Jose, CA computer software firm recently acquired by BMC Software of Houston. He was previously CEO of Ingres Corp. and senior vice president of UCCEL, where he built one of the first major software firms.
Assistant Professor Anthony Wagner of the Department of Brain and Cognitive Sciences (BCS) will be the first holder of the Paul E. Newton Career Development Professorship of Neuroscience. "This chair will significantly facilitate the progress of research in my laboratory and will contribute to our efforts to understand the neural underpinnings of human memory. It is a distinct honor to be awarded this prestigious professorship, and I greatly appreciate the support of Paul Newton and the Institute," he said.
"Anthony Wagner is an outstanding faculty member," said Professor Mriganka Sur, head of BCS. "His research into the mechanics of human memory has yielded some fascinating clues to memory systems of the brain that underlie how we learn and remember. We are tremendously grateful to Paul Newton for making these gifts in support of neuroscience at MIT."
Professor Wagner earned the BA from the University of California at Los Angeles in 1992 and the PhD from Stanford University in 1997. He subsequently did research at Harvard University and Massachusetts General Hospital before coming to MIT earlier this year.
Mr. Newton hopes his gift will accelerate basic neuroscience research that may ultimately yield new therapies for Alzheimer's disease or stroke victims, among others. "Many breakthroughs come when a researcher is not focused on finding a specific cure, but trying to understand the mechanics of what's going on. A moderate amount of money spent on basic research can have huge payoffs later," he said.
MIT has a large and growing program in the brain and cognitive sciences, where most of its neuroscience efforts are concentrated. Faculty in the field include Professor Susumu Tonegawa, who won the Nobel Prize in 1987 for his breakthroughs in immunology, and subsequently changed his focus to neuroscience; and Professor Steven Pinker, a psycholinguist whose best-selling works include The Language Instinct and How The Mind Works. Now being established is the McGovern Institute for Brain Research, a specialized center made possible at MIT by alumnus Patrick McGovern (SB 1954) and his wife, Lore Harp McGovern.
Although Mr. Newton has spent his career in the computer field, he recognizes the importance of the neuroscience area. "In the past, tremendous resources have gone in to the area of computers and access to information to assist the brain, but very little toward understanding the learning process and what might make the brain itself more effective," he said. He adds that although many recent advances have come from study of the visual, auditory and speech areas of the brain, it's crucial to investigate memory formation and the "pruning" that takes place in the brain during the formative years.
A version of this article appeared in MIT Tech Talk on August 9, 2000.