MIT recently announced the creation of the McGovern Institute for Brain Research, made possible by a magnificent gift from International Data Group founder and chairman Patrick McGovern, ’59, and his wife, Lore Harp McGovern. The gift, which will total $350 million over 20 years, is believed to be the largest ever pledged to a U.S. university for scientific research.
Creation of the McGovern Institute will launch one of the most profound and significant scientific ventures of the new century and surely will be a cornerstone of MIT’s scientific contributions in the decades ahead.
The new Institute ultimately will employ a staff of 300, including computer scientists, psychologists, and molecular biologists. At its core will be a team of 16 McGovern Investigators, including 10 new faculty. Institute Professor Phillip Sharp, a molecular biologist and Nobel laureate, will be the Institute’s founding director.
The mission of the new institute is to explore human learning and communication through interdisciplinary research in areas such as neuroscience, molecular neurobiology, bioengineering, cognitive science, computation, and genetics.
It is the hope of the McGoverns that the Institute will yield findings about human behavior that someday will reduce misunderstanding, distrust, and conflict among individuals, societies, and nations.
Understanding the brain is widely viewed as the next frontier of science and has profound implications for human health and quality of life. Four of the top 10 causes of disability in the world are mental illnesses. One day, we can expect revolutionary treatments for devastating disorders like depression, schizophrenia, and Alzheimer’s disease. And perhaps one day, we might even develop practical ways to prevent them.
Another challenge is to understand the mysteries of the brain and mind. MIT researchers already are developing innovative methods to help stroke victims master basic motor skills. And we may be just a few years away from creating a handheld device that does the work of a seeing-eye dog.
The McGovern Institute will take shape amidst a wealth of resources in brain research and related fields that already exists on campus. Activities in the neurosciences include: The Department of Brain and Cognitive Sciences, which offers one of the fastest-growing majors at MIT; the Center for Learning and Memory; and the Martinos Imaging Center.
These programs build on a remarkable record of achievement at MIT. Linguist Noam Chomsky startled scientists with his dramatic finding that all human languages exhibit features that reflect universal genetic predispositions. Professor Marvin Minsky, who formed here the world’s first laboratory for the study of artificial intelligence, created computer programs with near human-level ability to solve problems in certain branches of mathematics. Physicist Jerome Lettvin revealed that eye nerve networks have brain-like qualities that make rough distinctions between different objects before the signal travels into the brain. Associate Professor Nancy Kanwisher and associate Russell Epstein made the surprising discovery that a sugar-cube sized portion of the brain recognizes all kinds of spaces, from closets to vast landscapes, and lets us get our bearings almost instantaneously when we go from one space to another. And Nobel-laureate Susumu Tonegawa, director of the Center for Learning and Memory, with colleague Matt Wilson, was among the first to show how seeing a place registers in specific ways in specific parts of the brain — and how a modest change in the genetic equipment of some brain cells can all but eliminate abilities to learn how to navigate a specific place.
The human mind and brain have raised questions that have vexed scientists for centuries: How do we reason? What is consciousness? How do we remember? And why do we forget? We cannot guarantee answers to these fundamental questions, but over the next several decades we are certain to yield important progress toward answers. The formation of the McGovern Institute will be a giant step in our quest to improve the health and well-being of individuals and society.