A $50 million gift from the Picower Foundation earmarked specifically for brain and cognitive research will accelerate MIT's drive to discover the intricate functioning of the brain and the malfunctions involved in schizophrenia, memory loss, Alzheimer's, Huntington's disease and other brain disorders. This is the single largest gift ever given to MIT by a private foundation.
The gift from the Picower Foundation of Palm Beach, Fla., was announced at a ceremony on May 9 hosted by President Charles M. Vest and Nobel laureate Susumu Tonegawa, professor of biology and neurosciences and a Howard Hughes Medical Institute investigator. It will permanently establish the Picower Center for Learning and Memory at MIT.
Tonegawa, director of the center, set the mood for the day when he quoted another Nobel laureate, David Hubel, in his opening remarks: "When it comes to a real mystery, there are only two cosmic problems left for humankind to solve. One is to understand the universe and the other is to understand the human brain."
"This is a wonderful day for MIT and for the scientific and medical communities," said Vest at Thursday's ceremony. "Many see the understanding of the brain and mind as the greatest scientific challenge of the 21st century. And there is no field in which major advances will have more profound effects for human progress and health."
UNDERSTANDING THE BRAIN
The mission of MIT's Center for Learning and Memory 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 will now be known as the Picower Center for Learning and Memory.
"Each of our mental activities is based on a unique set of events and processes occurring across the hierarchy of the brain's different levels,"said Tonegawa, who won the 1987 Nobel Prize in physiology or medicine for discovering how gene fragments combine to produce countless variations in immune response of humans. "Without them we would not survive, much less create the rich fabric that is our human culture.
"The Picower Center's mission is to identify these events and processes, and to shed light on the relationships among them that underlie learning and memory."
The Picower Foundation gift will be used for three key purposes: It will provide $12 million to endow four faculty research positions, to be known as the Picower Professors. The first of these four faculty chairs will be held by Susumu Tonegawa. It will also establish a permanent endowment for the research and operations of the Picower Center.
Finally, the Picower gift will make it possible for MIT to construct a state-of-the-art facility for the Picower Center for Learning and Memory, which will be a key component of a new complex for brain and cognitive science on campus, designed by architects Charles Correa Associates in association with the Boston firm of Goody, Clancy & Associates.
The Picower Foundation, founded by Jeffry M. and Barbara Picower, is one of the largest foundations in the nation. It was founded in 1989 with the mission of helping people improve the quality of their lives by providing services that enable them to become productive and self-sufficient. The foundation's medical mission is to support cutting-edge biomedical research.
Barbara Picower, executive director and trustee of the Picower Foundation, spoke of the motivation for the foundation's gift: "With the completion of the genome project, it became apparent to us that many of the diseases once thought of as incurable will, in the not so distant future, be cured, and our bodies will be healthy and we will live longer. But we wondered if our minds would keep pace.
"After much investigation, we chose to support MIT in its efforts to build a world-class, cutting-edge research institute devoted to the brain. MIT possesses a unique breadth of expertise, ranging from molecular and genetic biology to computer intelligence. Because of its impressive track record of research and discoveries and its excellent faculty, MIT is uniquely positioned to meet the challenges of this new frontier."
This is the fourth gift the Picower Foundation has given to MIT. Since 2000, the foundation has given MIT $200,000 annually to attract and support science and engineering doctoral students from underrepresented minority groups. These fellowships are named in honor of Norman B. Leventhal, a longtime friend of the Picowers, a trustee of the foundation and a member of the MIT Class of 1938.
Dean of Science Robert Silbey commented, "One of the key advantages of the Picower contribution is that it will add to MIT, already known for its work in artificial intelligence, language and the mind, a huge strength in molecular and cellular neuroscience. MIT embraces an integrated approach to brain and cognitive sciences in which the brain's molecules, cells, networks and systems are explored in the context of the whole organ. While other institutions are known for individual departments that focus on single aspects of brain research such as molecular research or psychology, MIT is taking a comprehensive approach to the study of the brain, from the molecular biology of the synapse to the study of language."
The Picower Center for Learning and Memory is one of four MIT entities involved in exploring brain function through biology, electrical engineering, computer science, linguistics and bioengineering. The Department of Brain and Cognitive Sciences and the Picower Center will work with the McGovern Institute for Brain Research, led by Nobel laureate Phillip A. Sharp, and the Athinoula A. Martinos Center for Functional and Structural Biomedical Imaging, led by Bruce Rosen and run by the Harvard-MIT Division of Health Sciences and Technology (HST) and the Massachusetts General Hospital.
A version of this article appeared in MIT Tech Talk on May 15, 2002.