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Picowers Give $50M For Brain Research

By Kevin R. Lang


MIT announced Thursday that the Jeffry M. and Barbara Picower Foundation donated $50 million to establish the Picower Center for Learning and Memory.

The gift is the largest private foundation gift in MIT history. Larger donations have been received from individuals, including $100 million from Kenan E. Sahin ’63 and an estimated $350 million from Patrick J. McGovern ’59.

The existing Center for Learning and Memory will be renamed and housed in a new facility as part of the Brain and Cognitive Sciences Center, which will be built at the corner of Vassar and Main Streets. The renamed center will continue to be directed by Nobel Laureate and Professor of Biology Susumu Tonegawa, who won the 1987 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for his work on genetics and immune response.

“We are really pleased,” Tonegawa said. “For this size of a center, which is relatively small, to get a gift of this size is rather rare.”

The donation will allow the center to expand from its current faculty size of nine to a total of thirteen professors. The four new endowed professorships will be established with $12 million of the gift. A further $8 million will be used for research, and the remainder will go toward the new building in the Brain and Cognitive Sciences Center.

Tonegawa said that the primary function of the center would not change with the new donation. “We already have our own vision of what kind of research should be done here,” he said. However, one of the new faculty will specialize in researching the mechanisms which cause brain diseases, such as Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s diseases.

“This we don’t have right now,” Tonegawa said, but the Picowers were particularly interested in this area.

Picowers announce donation

The donation was announced Thursday at a ceremony on campus.

“Meeting with [President Charles M.] Vest, Tonegawa, [Dean of Science Robert J.] Silbey and their colleagues, we learned of MIT’s existing commitment to brain research,” said Barbara Picower, executive director and trustee of the Picower Foundation, in a statement. “We agreed with MIT that neuroscience and the study of the brain and mind will be one of the greatest frontiers of science in the decades ahead.

“We believe this research will have a tremendous impact not only on human health but on virtually everything we do. After much investigation, we chose to support MIT in its efforts to build a world-class, cutting-edge research institute devoted to the brain,” Picower said. She cited MIT’s “unique breadth of expertise” and “impressive track record of research and discoveries” as reasons for selecting the Institute for the donation.

Interest in brain research growing

The donation represents the second major gift MIT has received for brain research since early 2000, when McGovern made his landmark donation establishing the McGovern Institute for Brain Research. Tonegawa said that MIT hopes to be the world leader in brain research, a rapidly expanding field.

“If you look at how human beings are, we have physical ability but also mental ability,” Tonegawa said. “The latter is much more evolved than the former.”

“Some people say this is the most exciting area in life science or biology,” he said. “To understand the brain is to understand what it really means to be human.”

Tonegawa said that some consider brain research “the last unexplored area” in life science, and that the “time is right for us to be able to make major progress in this area.”

“Understanding the brain and the mind is one of the most important ... scientific projects that we believe we can accomplish at the present time,” Silbey said. “With the advances in neurobiology, systems neuroscience, and cognitive science, we are at the brink of wonderful new discoveries.”

Center expands MIT research

Negotiations between the foundation and MIT took place beginning more than a year ago, Tonegawa said, but the donation became finalized in recent months.

The Picower Center will join three other groups on campus focusing on brain research: the Department of Brain and Cognitive Sciences; the new McGovern Institute; and the Athinoula A. Martinos Center for Functional and Structural Biomedical Imaging.

The Picower Center has been chartered with the goal of understanding how the brain learns, remembers, and thinks. The donation will be used to give a permanent home to the Center for Learning and Memory, which was established in 1994.

The Picower Foundation, established in 1989, has also donated $200,000 annually to MIT since 2000, to support doctoral fellowships for underrepresented minorities. The non-profit foundation donates to a broad range of medical, arts, and educational programs.