McGovern Institute for Brain Research

The McGovern Institute for Brain Research at is a research and teaching institute committed to advancing human understanding and communications. The goal of the McGovern Institute is to investigate and ultimately understand the biological basis of higher brain function in humans. The Institute is conducting interdisciplinary research that combines and extends the results of recent breakthroughs in three major, interrelated areas: systems and computational neuroscience, imaging and cognitive neuroscience, and genetic and cellular neuroscience.


Christopher Moore, a McGovern investigator and assistant professor in the Department of Brain and Cognitive Sciences, arrived January 2003 and established his laboratory in interim space. Professor Moore's primary interest is perception and, specifically, how rapid changes in neural organization underlie changes in perceptual function. The focus of his research is somatosensory cortical dynamics and their relation to detection and discrimination, and tactile motion perception. He is conducting a closely related set of experiments on these topics using fMRI, optical imaging and electrophysiological techniques (intra- and extracellular). Chris' goal of applying these complimentary approaches in the human, monkey and rat is to link human perception with detailed neuroscientific investigation.

Michale Fee, a McGovern investigator and associate professor in the Department of Brain and Cognitive Sciences, arrived at MIT from Bell Labs/Lucent Technologies in May 2003. Professor Fee has chosen vocalization in the zebra finch as an experimental system to investigate how neural sequences are generated. Recently, his laboratory has shown that nucleus RA, which projects directly to motor neurons of the vocal organ, contains neurons that generate a distinctive and reproducible sequence of brief bursts of spikes per song. More exciting, they have further discovered that a subset of neurons in region HVC, which drive RA neurons, have an extremely sparse code. In the future, Dr. Fee plans to study how vocalizations are learned by the songbird and will explore the interactions of systems of neurons at novel and exciting levels of behavior.

Marilyn Smith left the McGovern Institute as assistant director for administration, and Gayle Wolf assumed the position in August 2002. Donna Wells, formerly the administrative assistant was promoted to financial officer, and Lori Harris was hired as the new administrative assistant for the office.


The McGovern Institute held its inaugural retreat September 25 #8211;26, 2002 at the Sea Crest Resort on Cape Cod, Falmouth, MA. There were approximately 70 participants from the labs of the McGovern investigators as well as a few visitors from other departments at MIT. Each McGovern investigator gave a 40-minute presentation on their current research. The evening was complete with a well-attended poster session.

The McGovern Board of Directors meets quarterly: July, October, January and April. The membership of the board has not changed since its inception and consists of: Patrick McGovern, Lore McGovern, Elizabeth McGovern, Gerald Fischbach of Columbia University, Robert Langer from MIT, Edward Scolnick from Merck and Company Inc, Robert Silbey from MIT, Sheila Widnall from MIT, and Torsten Wiesel of Rockefeller University.

The Institute is also guided by a distinguished Scientific Advisory Board composed of some of the world's most prominent neurobiologists. It held its second meeting on April 15, 2003 and spent the day meeting with the McGovern investigators. At the end of the day a report was given to Patrick and Lore McGovern, Robert Brown, and Robert Silbey. Members of the board are John Duncan, Medical Research Council, England ; Eric Kandel, Columbia University ; Nikos Logothetis, Max-Planck Institute for Biological Cybernetics ; Carla Schatz, Harvard Medical School ; Charles Stevens, Salk Institute ; and Robert Wurtz, National Eye Institute. William Newsome, Stanford University Medical School, was a member until recently.

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Awards and Honors

Ann M. Graybiel was named the recipient of the 2002 James R. Killian Faculty Achievement Award, which acknowledges extraordinary professional accomplishment by full-time members of the MIT faculty. Graybiel's research focuses on the neurophysiology of the basal ganglia, brain regions implicated in the control of movement and cognition, as well as our ability to acquire habit.

In the fall of 2002, H. Robert Horvitz received the Nobel Prize in Medicine or Physiology for his landmark discovery that specific genes control programmed cell death, or apoptosis.

Research Accomplishments

The Graybiel lab reports that excessive grooming behaviors, cleansing rituals, and self-mutilation are important features of a range of neuropsychiatric diseases including obsessive compulsive (OC)-spectrum disorders. In an issue of Neuron it is reported that Hoxb8 mutant mice exhibit this behavioral phenotype. These Hoxb8 mutants will be valuable in exploring the genetics and pathophysiology of OC-spectrum disorders as well as strategies for their treatment.

The Poggio lab has reported that they can simulate mouth movements that look so real, most viewers cannot tell that the model, Mary 101, isn't an ordinary videotape of a person speaking. The computer takes the mouth-images of Mary 101 and, using an algorithm, the computer is able to figure out from the original video footage how Mary 101's mouth moves, allowing the software to re-synthesize new utterances. Tomaso Poggio investigates learning theories that can be applied to understanding the brain and building intelligent machines. He is interested in developing techniques that allow computers to learn from experience. Applications range from classifying text to analyzing genetic data and creating artificial financial markets. Ultimately, Poggio is interested in furthering understanding of the human brain and creating machines that think more like people. Mary 101 may someday have the ability to put a "real" face on computer avatars which would have applications in the business realm, entertainment, speech therapy, and in teaching a foreign language through a computerized tutor.

Phillip A. Sharp
Institute Professor

More information about the McGovern Institute can be found on the web at


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