• Head of the Department of Brain and Cognitive Sciences and the Paul E Newton (1965) Professor of Neuroscience Mriganka Sur, left, led a toast to newly named Institute Professor Ann Graybiel, along with Robert Desimone, director of the McGovern Institute, at a party given in Graybiel's honor.

    Photo / Donna Coveney

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  • Ann Graybiel

    Photo / Donna Coveney

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Ann Graybiel named Institute Professor

Ann Graybiel, the Walter A. Rosenblith Professor of Neuroscience in the Department of Brain and Cognitive Sciences, has been named Institute Professor, the highest honor MIT can bestow on a member of the faculty.

Graybiel, who is also an investigator in the McGovern Institute for Brain Research, has been a member of the MIT faculty since 1973. She is the 14th current Institute Professor and the second to receive the honor this year.

"Even by the very high standards for appointment as an Institute Professor, Ann Graybiel stands out. Her work has been profoundly important, both in terms of fundamental science and consequences for human health," said MIT President Susan Hockfield. "Professor Graybiel's research has contributed profoundly to our understanding of the functional anatomy and physiology of the brain, particularly the brain regions involved in the control of movement. Her work has provided new insights to the neurobiological basis of a range of disorders, from Parkinson's disease to major depression."

"Ann is admired among her colleagues for incorporating the most advanced approaches in molecular biology and systems neuroscience for answering fundamental questions about the brain and opening up new avenues for the treatment of many devastating disorders," said Bish Sanyal, chair of the MIT faculty. "In addition to admiring her research, all of us on the MIT faculty respect Ann for her broad intellect, dynamic personality, endless energy, remarkable commitment to teaching and training, and unyielding commitment to MIT."

"By any measure, Ann Graybiel has made scholarly contributions of exceptional distinction and demonstrated an unusual, interdisciplinary breadth of interest and accomplishment," said Provost L. Rafael Reif. "During her time at MIT, she has been an outstanding scientist and made key contributions as a founding member of the McGovern Institute. She has displayed personal qualities of friendship and collegiality, while serving as a role model for the next generation of neuroscientists."

Unlocking the brain's secrets

Graybiel has revolutionized scientists' understanding of the functional anatomy and physiology of the brain and, more specifically, of the large forebrain region known as the basal ganglia.

When Graybiel started out, it was known that Parkinson's and Huntington's diseases were caused by malfunctions of the basal ganglia. Many researchers assumed that the basal ganglia controlled only physical motion and gesture.

It is in large part thanks to Graybiel's research, however, that scientists have come to see the basal ganglia as playing a key role in a much broader scope of activities, including learning, memory and formation of habits. Her insights have helped further researchers' understanding of disorders such as Tourette Syndrome, obsessive compulsive disorder and attention deficit disorder -- and why, for example, good habits are so hard to make and bad habits so hard to break.

"It's a great puzzle," Graybiel said in a 2006 interview, commenting on the remaining mysteries of the basal ganglia. "Somehow the same or related circuitry that gets damaged in Parkinson's disease is also involved in habit formation, addiction and procedural learning."

Graybiel received her PhD in 1971 from MIT. She is a member of the National Academy of Sciences, the Institute of Medicine, and the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. Graybiel was named a recipient of the 2001 National Medal of Science, the nation's highest science and technology honor.

In 2002, Graybiel was awarded the James R. Killian Faculty Achievement Award, which recognizes extraordinary professional accomplishment by full-time members of the MIT faculty.

In 2004, Graybiel received the Woman Leader of Parkinson's Science award from the Parkinson's Disease Foundation, and in 2006, she was named the Harold S. Diamond Professor by the National Parkinson Foundation in recognition of her contributions to the understanding and treatment of Parkinson's disease.

"Ann has been a giant in neuroscience for many years, and she remains at the top of her field," said Robert Desimone, the Doris and Don Berkey Professor of Neuroscience and director of the McGovern Institute for Brain Research. "I cannot stress enough how Ann incorporates the most advanced approaches in molecular biology and systems neuroscience for answering fundamental questions about the basal ganglia and their role in Parkinson's disease, addiction, learning disorders, and schizophrenia."

Institute Professorships

The process for selecting Institute Professors involves an ad hoc faculty committee convened by the chair of the faculty and the president. That committee evaluates each nominee, in part by soliciting opinions from professionals in the nominee's field. The committee's recommendations are reviewed by the Academic Council and approved by the Executive Committee of the Corporation.

In addition to the prestige associated with the title, an Institute Professor has a distinct measure of freedom to define the scope and nature of his or her responsibilities. Reporting directly to the provost, an Institute Professor does not have regular departmental or school responsibilities. As a result, the appointment provides a special opportunity to work across departmental boundaries.

The 13 other current Institute Professors and their traditional areas of study are Emilio Bizzi, brain and cognitive sciences; John M. Deutch, chemistry; Peter A. Diamond, economics; John H. Harbison, music and theater arts; Robert S. Langer, chemical engineering, biological engineering, mechanical engineering; Barbara Liskov, electrical engineering and computer science; John D.C. Little, management; Thomas Magnanti, management and electrical engineering and computer science (EECS); Joel Moses, EECS and the Engineering Systems Division (ESD); Phillip A. Sharp, biology; Isadore M. Singer, mathematics; Daniel I.C. Wang, chemical engineering; and Sheila E. Widnall, aeronautics and astronautics and ESD.

The 10 Institute Professors Emeriti are Noam Chomsky, Mildred S. Dresselhaus, Jerome I. Friedman, Morris Halle, Chia-Chiao Lin, Mario Molina, Paul A. Samuelson, Nevin S. Scrimshaw, Robert M. Solow and John S. Waugh.

A version of this article appeared in MIT Tech Talk on November 5, 2008 (download PDF).

Topics: Health sciences and technology, Neuroscience, Awards, honors and fellowships, Faculty


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