The Simons Foundation has given the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) a $26.5 million gift. The money will be used to develop the Simons Center for the Social Brain at MIT, a novel plan that aims to catalyze newfangled research on the social brain and translate the research into enhanced diagnosis and treatment of autism spectrum disorders (ASD).
Although the Boston and Cambridge area's already have a remarkable hub of research in autism, the new center is a considerable addition. The center will work in collaboration with the Simons Foundation Autism Research Initiative, this will bring several academic and medical institutions together to get a better understanding of autism spectrum disorders.
Currently in the U.S., ASD affects 1 in 110 children. ASD refers to a group of complicated neurodevelopmental disorders that cause behavioral and social communication impairments in children and adults. The economic impact ASD has on society is significant. Per person with ASD lifetime cost of care exceed $3 million.
MIT President Susan Hockfield explained:
"Through visionary gifts to MIT, Jim and Marilyn Simons, together with the Simons Foundation, have created powerful momentum in the drive to understand and, ultimately, treat autism. In launching the Simons Center for the Social Brain, the Simons Foundation advances our boldest ambitions to define new routes to understanding the brain and mind, and to lift the burden of ASD for individuals and their families."
Marian Carlson, deputy director of life sciences at the Simons Foundation, stated: "We expect that the Simons Center will accelerate progress by engaging researchers from diverse disciplines across MIT."
Gerald D. Fischbach, scientific director of the Simons Foundation, said:
"The goal of the Simons Center for the Social Brain at MIT is to understand the neural mechanisms underlying social cognition and behavior, and to translate this knowledge into better diagnosis and treatment of autism spectrum disorders. Neural correlates of social cognition and behavior exist in diverse species, and the underlying mechanisms will be studied in both humans and relevant model organisms and systems."
MIT has received several gifts from Jim ('58) and Marilyn Simons, and from the Simons Foundation. As well as the latest gift, MIT received almost $15 million in support of autism research, $4.5 million gift in 2009 to set up the Simons Initiative on Autism and the Brain at MIT, over the past 6 years. It was progress from that initiative, which concludes at the end of 2011, that paved the way for the novel center.
Mriganka Sur, the Lilah and Paul E. Newton Professor of Neuroscience and head of the Department of Brain and Cognitive Sciences, explained: "MIT has all the ingredients necessary for making spectacular progress in understanding and treating autism: top-notch basic science, intensely creative technology and longstanding collaborations with Boston-area hospitals and clinics". Sur will lead the novel center, which is open to participation by all interested faculty and other investigators.
Dean of Science Marc Kastner said:
"MIT researchers have already discovered new genes contributing to autism risk, used new ways of brain imaging to reveal the cognitive systems disengaged in autism, and discovered therapeutic approaches for two subsets of autism. The latter are currently being tested in clinical trials. With the new center, we expect to multiply this rate of progress several-fold."
High-risk, high-payoff projects
The goal of the novel center is to conduct high-risk, high-payoff studies that have potential to considerably impact how autism is diagnosed and treated long into the future. Specific problems that represent great but solvable obstacles for the field, such as identifying specific genetic conditions underlying subsets of autism, will be targeted together by multilevel research groups. These teams will consist of large numbers of investigators, integrate multiple levels of inquiry and analysis, and potentially span multiple institutions.
The center will first establish the infrastructure for its plan by creating programs that represent four major research areas - cognitive neuroscience, translation and therapeutics, genetics and gene discovery, and models and mechanisms. MIT has special strengths - particularly in computation and theory and tools and technologies - that make the Institute uniquely placed in order to gain advances in each of these four areas.
Founded in 1994 by Jim and Marilyn Simons, the Simons Foundation is a private foundation based in New York City. Jim Simons, who holds an SB from MIT and a PhD from the University of California at Berkeley, is the former CEO of Renaissance Technologies LLC. Prior to his financial career, he served as chairman of the Mathematics Department at SUNY Stony Brook and taught mathematics at MIT and Harvard University. For the past two decades Marilyn Simons, who holds a BA and PhD in economics from the State University of New York at Stony Brook, has worked mainly in the nonprofit sector as a volunteer.
Written by Grace Rattue