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MIT and Brain Research

The Massachusetts Institute of Technology has made many contributions to our understanding of the brain and the mind. It was the source of the seminal finding that all humans have an innate ability to form sentences in the "right" way, i.e., with a subject, a predicate, and so on. Its researchers also showed that nerve networks in the eye do some processing of visual signals before these travel into the brain proper. And an MIT group was one of the first to demonstrate the brain's role in computation, helping launch the field of computational neuroscience.

Today, MIT continues to make key contributions to the brain and cognitive sciences. In recent years, for example, Institute scientists have:

  • identified and mapped a group of brain cells that give mammals the ability to learn tasks like finding their way around a maze, and pinpointed a brain chemical critical to such learning (more);
  • found a sugar cube-sized locus in the brain that is activated by the sight of places--e.g., a room, house, meadow or cityscape--or by mental images of places (more);
  • showed that the brain can rewire itself based on electrical activity in brain pathways (more);
  • helped reveal the biological reasons why addictions and bad habits are so hard to overcome (more).

At MIT, four interlinked organizations carry out brain research. They are: the Brain and Cognitive Sciences Department; the McGovern Institute for Brain Research; the Picower Center for Learning and Memory; and the Martinos Center for Biomedical Imaging, a collaboration of MIT, Massachusetts General Hospital and Harvard University. The Department of Brain and Cognitive Sciences, which forms an umbrella for education and research on the brain and mind, is led by Mriganka Sur, who has made pioneering contributions to our understanding of the organization, development and plasticity of the cerebral cortex. Two Nobel laureates head other core components of the MIT neuroscience program: Phillip A. Sharp, whose prize-winning work involved the basic structure and function of the genome and who leads the McGovern Institute; and Susumu Tonegawa, who described the mechanism by which our genes help produce the amazing diversity of cells that allows our bodies to defend themselves against diseases and who heads the Picower Center. Bruce Rosen, who is a leader in the application of functional imaging tools to the study of brain function, directs the Martinos Center.

MIT has made brain studies one of its top institutional priorities. Specific goals include:

  • explaining the biological basis for high-level cognitive activities like planning and analyzing;
  • understanding the mechanisms by which the brain develops and changes;
  • mapping neuron-by-neuron how functions like vision, hearing and learning occur in the brain;
  • exploring such functions at the behavioral level, with the goal of understanding the rules the brain applies to tasks like identifying specific sights--e.g., Is that a familiar or an unknown face? --and probing the origins of major brain ailments, including Alzheimer's and Parkinson's diseases.

The Institute has also embarked on a major effort to enhance its resources for brain and cognitive studies. It has developed several new faculty positions, thereby adding to its already impressive roster of teacher-scholars in the area. It is also expanding its graduate and undergraduate programs involving studies of the brain and mind. MIT plans to build a major center on campus to house three of the four key elements of its brain and cognitive sciences program; the Martinos Center is located at the Mass General's Charlestown campus.

MIT has made a commitment to build its brain and cognitive sciences program in significant part by developing contributions from private sources. Exceptionally generous gifts from the McGovern family, the Picower Foundation and the Martinos family have laid a strong foundation for MIT's unprecedented initiative in brain studies.

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