The McGovern Institute for Brain Research

Fulfilling a lifelong fascination with the human brain, Patrick J. McGovern and his wife Lore Harp McGovern made a historic gift to MIT in 2000 to establish the McGovern Institute for Brain Research. They foresaw the enormous potential for the evolving field of neuroscience to transform every aspect of society — from education to medicine and the arts. At the same time, they aimed to stem the social and human suffering caused by diseases of the brain. The new institute would be at the vanguard of research into diseases such as autism spectrum disorders, Parkinson’s disease, and depression

Today, this world-class community of neuroscientists is dedicated to understanding how the brain works and discovering new ways to prevent or treat brain disease. The Institute has grown to more than 400 researchers led by 21 distinguished investigators, including one Nobel laureate and seven members of the National Academy of Sciences. Using the latest research tools for neuroscience – from genetics and protein engineering to robotics and brain imaging – the institute is peering into the brain in ways never before possible, uncovering new insights into how the brain develops, learns, remembers, and processes the world around us.

As the McGovern Institute celebrated its 20-year Anniversary in 2020, Director Robert Desimone reflected that he is as optimistic as ever about life-saving and therapeutic discoveries in the years ahead. “I predict that in 20 years, we will have quantitative models of brain function that will not only explain how the brain gives rise to at least some aspects of our mind, but will also give us a new mechanistic understanding of brain disorders. This, in turn, will lead to new types of therapies, in what I imagine to be a post-pharmaceutical era of the future. I have no doubt that these same brain models will inspire new educational approaches for our children, and will be incorporated into whatever replaces my automobile, and iPhone, in 2040.”

The Patrick J. McGovern Foundation is committed to the transformative potential of neuroscience, and supports the faculty and research of the McGovern Institute, including these recent projects:

Rapid COVID-19 Testing: The labs of Drs. Feng Zhang, Omar Abudayyeh, and Jonathan Gootenberg are developing a rapid, point-of-care COVID-19 test based on their CRISPR gene editing technology.

Why We Punish: Dr. Rebecca Saxe’s lab has launched a three-year project to understand why people are motivated to punish and what processes operate inside the mind and brain when we make moral decisions.

Highlights from 20 Years of Breakthroughs

ARTIFICIAL VISION: In 2007, Dr. Tomaso Poggio creates a computer model that mimics human vision—technology that is now used in “smart” vehicles to recognize pedestrians, cyclists, and other vehicles

LOCALIZING LANGUAGE: In 2011, Dr. Ev Fedorenko and Dr. Nancy Kanwisher discover a network of brain regions specialized for language, a seminal finding that upends dominant theories of the time.

CRISPR REVOLUTION: In 2013 Dr. Feng Zhang reports the first use of CRISPR for genome editing in human cells, setting off a revolution in neuroscience and biomedical research around the world.

MRI SENSOR: In 2014, using magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) and a specialized molecular sensor, Dr. Alan Jasanoff maps neural signals with high precision over large areas of the living brain for the very first time.

SCANNING FOR DISEASE: In 2016, Dr. John Gabrieli finds brain differences in children who are vulnerable to depression before symptoms appear, suggesting that brain scans may identify children at high risk for developing mental illness later in life.

AUTISM MODEL: In 2019, using CRISPR, Dr. Robert Desimone and Dr. Guoping Feng engineer monkeys to express a gene mutation linked to autism — the new model could help scientists develop better treatments for neurodevelopmental disorders.

Brain scan image courtesy of McGovern Institute for Brain Research

IDG/McGovern institutes in China

Pat and Lore McGovern also supported the work of three neuroscience institutes in China:

IDG/McGovern Institute for Brain Research at Peking University: Since 2012, neural and cognitive scientists have been working to advance understanding of the fundamental processes underlying brain function and uncover the mechanisms of brain disorders. Researchers are studying a wide range of important questions like how the brain processes the emotions of others, and how neurodegenerative diseases, such as Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s, develop. The Institute stresses interdisciplinary cooperation with faculty members across the university such as biology, psychology, and psychiatry.

IDG/McGovern Institute for Brain Research at Beijing Normal University: Founded in 2011, award-winning researchers at the IDG/McGovern Brain Science Institute at Beijing Normal study mental and brain development, specifically in children and adolescents. They are also working to answer questions about the mechanisms of learning, the plasticity of the brain, and brain function disorders in children and adolescents. Findings are used as a springboard to promote children’s education, and alleviate pain in patients with brain disorders.

IDG/McGovern Institute for Brain Research at Tsinghua University: Established in 2011 and led by prize-winning scientist Dr. Zhong Yi, The IDG/McGovern Institute for Brain Research at Tsinghua University in Beijing is focused on cell, molecular, system, and computational neuroscience. The institute explores new applications of brain science to further understand how the brain functions and how to rebuild and protect the brain. It aims to build a world-class research program that is genetically based and technology driven within the next 5-10 years.