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Amy Schneider, an associate at MIT’s new McGovern Institute, worked in the Teuber Library, overlooking Cambridge.
Amy Schneider, an associate at MIT’s new McGovern Institute, worked in the Teuber Library, overlooking Cambridge. (Wendy Maeda/ Globe Staff)

MIT pools its brain power

United under a roof, neuroscientists seek breakthroughs

On Friday, MIT plans to dedicate what it bills as the largest collection of brain scientists under one roof in the world.

The new 411,000-square-foot building of limestone and glass, the largest research building on campus, stands on what must already be one of the brainiest corners in the world: at Vassar and Main streets in Cambridge. Its neighbors include the genetics powerhouse of the Broad Institute, the engineering might of the computer science department at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and the start-up energy of the 150 or so biotech companies in Kendall Square.

So close to one another and to such neighbors, researchers in the $175 million Brain and Cognitive Sciences Complex say they will have the opportunity to collaborate in ways that promise progress on some of the thorniest problems of neuroscience, from the nature of consciousness to the origins of schizophrenia and autism.

''Geography is destiny, after all," said neuroscience professor Earl K. Miller. The building, he said, will bring together researchers who attack the brain at radically different levels, from those who study molecules to those who study memory. ''The next leap forward in understanding the brain will come from coordinated efforts" across that spectrum, he said.

Take autism, said Mriganka Sur, head of the Department of Brain and Cognitive Sciences: The disorder is complex, both in its genes and its symptoms. Genetically, it appears to depend on small effects from many genes, and such complex diseases are ''the hardest ones to crack," Sur said. But ''we think we can crack them in this building, because of the expertise that exists."

Or take lying, said Susumu Tonegawa, director of the Picower Institute for Learning and Memory, which will occupy the building along with Sur's department and the new McGovern Institute for Brain Research.

Some day, he said, a device the size of a Red Sox cap will be able to read out and analyze data from billions of neurons so quickly that it will be possible to tell whether the person wearing it is lying.

But to develop such tools, you need ''young, brilliant engineers and physicists who are interested in totally new technology for noninvasive brain imaging," he said. ''We want to promote the interaction of neuroscientists with engineers and physicists."

In its basement, the 48-lab building has the kind of brain-scanning magnets that researchers previously had to travel to a facility in Charlestown to use. The building has one 3-Tesla brain scanner, the most powerful routinely used on humans; it has an even more powerful one for animals. And it has a third room the size of a handball court that is still empty: It is waiting for the next great brain-scanning technology, said Robert Desimone, director of the McGovern.

The center is designed to house 500 workers, most of them already at MIT.

Traditionally, Desimone said, brain-science centers have grown out of medical schools, where researchers could tap a ready pool of patients. But being in a hospital ''doesn't necessarily give you the technological edge that you need to really make progress."

These days, he said, neuroscience is reaching the point where ''finally, finally, we have the tools," the brain scanners and sophisticated methods in molecular biology and genetics. So now, he said, it makes more sense to locate brain science in a ''technology-centered place," such as MIT, where those tools can best be developed.

The new building is designed to maximize interaction, say its architects, Charles Correa Associates and Goody Clancy. Along with modern lab space, the building, which took less than three years to build, offers ''tea rooms" and glass-walled conservatories where researchers can congregate and long lines of sight in the hallways to help scientists see one another from afar and perhaps stop for a brief chat.

Already, said Picower neuroscientist Mark Bear, whose lab moved into the building several weeks ago, researchers are noticing a difference: He used to bump into Sur more at international meetings than at MIT, he said. No longer.

Does such casual contact really spur science?

''Absolutely," said Dr. John Mazziotta, chairman of Neurology at the University of California at Los Angeles, which has many more brain researchers than MIT but splits them among a number of buildings. Regular interaction ''has been proven in science to produce insights that don't happen through e-mail or on the phone or when you have to walk across the campus." And when a brain-mapping center was created on his campus, he said, it brought ''an incredible boost in productivity."

At UCLA, brain-scanning specialists work with geneticists, engineers, and nanotechnology people, he said. ''As these worlds come together, the product will be much greater than the sum of the parts."

Among the ideas being explored in the building is a plan to try to combine brain-scanning with genetics to figure out the basics of mental illness, said Desimone of the McGovern. Currently, he said, psychiatric diagnoses are based on sets of symptoms rather than underlying biology, a messy way to define diseases. The hope, he said, is to find patterns in the brain scans of patients with, say, schizophrenia and then pinpoint the genes associated with those patterns.

Brain science may not leap to mind when people think of MIT, but the school's president, Susan Hockfield, is a neuroscientist, and the institute beat several other universities to win the $350 million gift that forms the basis of the McGovern Institute.

Historically, Hockfield said, MIT has churned out inventions such as radar because of the mingling of scientists and engineers. ''And in many ways," she said, ''the new Brain and Cognitive Sciences building provides that same kind of cauldron of collaboration."

Carey Goldberg can be reached at goldberg@globe.com.

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