MIT to study genes' role in mental illness

Email|Print| Text size + By Carey Goldberg
Globe Staff / October 22, 2007

MIT's McGovern Institute for Brain Research will announce today that it has received $20 million to help crack the biological basis of serious mental illness.

The money, donated by MIT alumnus James Poitras and his wife Patricia, follows a $100 million donation earlier this year from another family philanthropy, the Stanley Medical Research Institute, to MIT and Harvard's Broad Institute, for efforts to unravel the genetics of psychiatric disease.

The McGovern money will be directed mainly at neuroscience - using cutting-edge tools to figure out how mental illness develops and acts in the brain. The institute will focus in part on how the genes found down the street at the Broad can affect mood states and cognition, and how they may interact with triggers in the environment, such as stress.

"We are hoping to bridge the gap from genes to the mind here," said Robert Desimone, director of the McGovern and head of the new James W. and Patricia T. Poitras Center for Affective Disorders Research.

Much of that work would have been impossible even three or four years ago, researchers say. But there has been an explosion in genomics advances, and neuroscience has been racing ahead as well, with new brain imaging techniques and new methods for studying and even altering the activity of individual neurons.

Progress on mental illness is desperately needed. Serious disorders affect tens of millions of Americans, and because the brain is so complex, scientific understanding of psychiatric diseases lags badly: diagnoses are still based largely on self-described symptoms rather than biological markers, and treatment often fails.

The growing scientific assault on mental illness is sparking such energy among researchers that it is becoming reminiscent of scientists' war on cancer of a generation ago, said Dr. Edward Scolnick, who oversees the Broad's psychiatric research. Then, as now, he said, Boston academic institutions and hospitals combined forces; they came up with "a lot of terrific discoveries in cancer biology."

It was the current enthusiasm among researchers for tackling mental illness that spurred the $20 million gift, the Poitrases say.

The Narcoossee, Fla., couple have a daughter with bipolar disorder and had long supported psychiatric research, mainly clinical studies, on a smaller scale. They have seen psychiatry shift from blaming mothers for a child's schizophrenia to the understanding that brain disease is biological. Now, said Patricia Poitras, "what's different is to hear from a major neuroscience center that this is an area they want to focus on."

James Poitras, who recently retired as president of Highland Laboratories Inc., a medical-products firm based in Ashland, said that the donation is set up so that about half of it can be quickly spent on research in the next few years, rather than husbanded for the long-term.

"We think the timing is right," he said. "Ten years ago, I'm not sure what they would have done with this money, and 20 years from now it will be a lost opportunity."

The Poitras money is to be used in part to support research within the McGovern, but will also go beyond its walls to collaborators around MIT and at institutions such as the Broad, Massachusetts General Hospital, and McLean Hospital.

The projects it supports are expected to range from basic biology work in animals on the brain systems that may go wrong in mental illness to clinical studies involving brain imaging in human subjects.

Charles Jennings, director of the McGovern's neurotechnology program, offered this example of the kind of findings that may be possible: Say a gene that heightens risk for mental illness is pinpointed. People carrying that gene could be identified and then asked to perform tests in a brain scanner that might illuminate how the gene influences brain activity.

Or genetic findings could help refine psychiatric diagnoses in ways that would help predict whether a given medication would help a given patient.

Looking farther into the future, he said, it may even be possible to develop implantable devices that could monitor mood swings in bipolar or depressive patients and provide electrical stimulation that could stabilize them, he said.

"It's not science fiction," Jennings said. Many such ideas already have proof of concept.

For families with members who have mental illness, said Desimone, the McGovern director, it has been gigantically frustrating, "just waiting and waiting and waiting all these years" for better treatments. "I personally am the most hopeful I've been in my career about where we are right now," he said.

Carey Goldberg is reachable at

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